DENVER — It can’t be a duel if one guy unsheathes his sword only to realize he has a butter knife, not a saber, at his disposal.
Such was the plight of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, he of the offensive butter knife, and earlier than hoped for start to the offseason.
As you know by now, the Patriots lost the AFC Championship game, 26-16, on Sunday to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
It turned out that Brady-Manning XV wasn’t much of a showdown, in part, because Brady didn’t have the requisite weapons to compete with Manning and the highest-scoring offense in NFL history, especially after the Patriots fell into a 23-3 fourth-quarter hole.
Brady kept repeating variations of the same theme in his postgame news conference — the Patriots needed to make more plays, he said.
The truth is they needed more playmakers to do so.
Brady is never one to whine about his weapons or throw teammates under the proverbial No. 12 bus.
But his season and that of the Patriots ended short of the Super Bowl because they didn’t have enough options in the passing game, not with Aaron Hernandez in jail, Rob Gronkowski recuperating from knee surgery, and Wes Welker wearing Broncos orange.
It was a predictable denouement to a season that began with Brady baptizing three rookie wide receivers, only one of whom, Aaron Dobson, played in the AFC title game, and Welker replacement Danny Amendola, who had zero catches and zero impact in this game.
With his aerial arsenal of Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Welker, Manning completed 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns, hitting the 400-yard mark against a Bill Belichick-led Patriots defense for the first time in 18 tries.
“Well, they’ve got a good offense, and they’ve done that all season,” said Brady. “Once they get the ball they got a lot of guys they can throw the ball to, and a lot of those guys made plays today.
“Give them a lot of credit. They made a lot more plays than we did.”
Meanwhile, Brady was throwing deep balls to Matthew Slater (one career reception) and Austin “Cut Me” Collie.
Not exactly a fair fight.
Belichick said in a reflective postgame news conference that the 2014 offseason starts Monday.
Priority No. 1 of this offseason should be getting Brady, who will be 37 next season, more weapons in the passing game.
The Patriots had ridden the run game into the AFC Championship game, rushing 46 times for 234 yards in a 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional playoffs. Brady was sent back to pass just 27 times.
The New England ground game was ground to a halt in Denver, running for 64 yards. It was 39 yards on 13 carries after three quarters.
The Broncos had so little respect for the Patriots’ passing game players that they found it preferable to roll the dice with Brady beating them with pedestrian pass-catchers.
“We tried to make Tom Brady beat us,” said Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. “He is a great quarterback. He is definitely going to be looked up to for a long time, will go to the Hall of Fame, for sure.
“We just wanted him to come out here and be one-dimensional. He tried to hit inside routes a lot. We wanted him to throw outside and this and that, play to his weakness a little bit, but play to our strengths a lot.”
That’s right, the Broncos’ game plan was to make Tom Brady beat them. That says it all about the Patriots’ passing game personnel.
Brady’s final numbers don’t look so bad — 24 of 38 for 277 yards and a touchdown, with a rushing TD.
But most of his yardage came in the fourth quarter after his team was down, 23-3.
Brady was 11 of 16 for 135 yards in the final quarter, when he threw a 7-yard touchdown to Julian Edelman and ran it in himself from 5 yards out.
Some of the blame belongs to Brady.
He missed a potential touchdown to Edelman (10 catches for 89 yards) in the first quarter.
Trailing, 13-3, late in the second quarter, Brady overthrew Collie on a deep pass that at least would have given the Patriots a shot at a field goal.
“I just overthrew them,” said Brady, when asked about the two misfires.
But Manning made poor throws too — he missed an open Decker in the end zone on the Broncos’ first scoring drive.
The difference was he could generate scoring chances at will, especially after Welker “inadvertently” collided with Aqib Talib, knocking the Patriots’ best cover corner out of the game with 13:31 left in the second quarter.
Brady was willing to do whatever it took to try to keep up with Manning. After Matt Prater’s fourth field goal made it 26-10, Brady ran it in from those 5 yards out with 3:07 left.
“He is a warrior,” said Welker. “That guy, he is going to fight until the end. He is a heck of a quarterback and a better friend.”
But Shane Vereen was stopped on the 2-point conversion rush.
Brady saw the play and bent over at the waist. He knew a sixth Super Bowl appearance had disappeared into the thin air of Denver.
Brady had a passing game that was too thin on playmakers to beat Manning this time.
Manning is now 2-2 in the playoffs against Brady, and 2-1 in AFC Championship games, beating depleted Patriots passing attacks both times.
Brady and Belichick took this admirable, indefatigable Patriots team as far as they could.
But in the end, the blade was too dull to make the final Super Bowl cut.