The New England Patriots’ season is over.
After a gut-wrenching, so-close-yet-so-far-away 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots are officially in the offseason along with 30 other franchises.
It may offer no solace right now, but the Patriots’ fifth straight trip to the conference title game only confirms their continued status as one the NFL’s elite teams. That being said, there won’t be much to feel good about for the Patriots as they review the film of this game and watch missed opportunities slip through their fingers.
Here are some of the reasons the Patriots lost to the Broncos:
1. Third downs: On and off, this has been one of the Patriots’ biggest problems this year. At first, it wasn’t a problem for the Patriots, who hummed to convert 48.7 percent of their third downs in the first nine games of the regular season. In their final seven games of the regular season, they dropped to 32 percent. The biggest contributing factor, it seemed, was the loss of wide receiver Julian Edelman in Week 10. With Edelman back in the fold, the Patriots converted 50 percent of their third downs against the Chiefs in the divisional round.
Against the Broncos, the Patriots faced several third-and-long situations due to their inability to run the football and complete passes on first and second down. They were unable to move the sticks consistently in those scenarios. Overall, the Patriots converted just two of their 15 third downs on the day, stalling out at nearly every turn on offense.
2. Tom Brady’s struggles in Denver continue: There’s no more denying it. Whatever the reason, whatever the explanation, Tom Brady has not played well in Denver. This defeat drops his career record in Denver to 2-7, including an 0-3 mark in the postseason.
On Sunday against the Broncos, Brady finished 27 of 56 (48.2 percent) for 310 yards (5.5 yards per attempt) with one touchdown, two interceptions and a 56.4 passer rating. Not only is that his second-lowest passer rating in a postseason game (his lowest was 49.1 against the Baltimore Ravens in 2009), but it is also the lowest passer rating he’s ever posted against Denver. Brady was under duress all day, as evidenced by the four sacks against him. Even when he wasn’t sacked, he was pressured all day and often threw passes off his back foot due to all the traffic in front of him, preventing his ability to step up.
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PHOTOS: Patriots vs. Broncos
3. The offensive line play was offensive: Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer might be late to the team plane out of Denver. They still have to pick up some of the pieces of themselves that were scattered all over the field when Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware shredded the Patriots’ tackles to bits. But they weren’t the only ones who were dominated in the trenches. Broncos interior lineman Derek Wolfe generated a lot of pressure on Brady with some nice pass-rush moves on Patriots guards Shaq Mason and Josh Kline.
The struggles weren’t even limited to just the passing game. The Patriots simply had no answer to the Broncos’ front seven, in any respect. In total, the Patriots running backs took 14 handoffs and ran the ball for 31 yards. As the game wore on, it became comical that the Patriots would even call any run plays for their backs.
4. Red-zone coverage: The Broncos scored two touchdowns, both on passes to tight end Owen Daniels in (or very close to) the red zone. One touchdown was a 21-yard strike up the middle, and the other was a 12-yard pass to the back-corner of the end zone after a stop-and-go move along the sideline. Both times, the Patriots got mixed up in coverage, and allowed Daniels to get a free release into an open space in the field. The Patriots’ coverage on tight ends has been very good this year, but it looked like the linebackers got mixed up in their assignments on those plays. You can’t make things that easy for Peyton Manning and expect to get away with it.
5. Missed extra point: Okay, I’m not pinning this loss entirely on Stephen Gostkowski. How could I, or anyone for that matter? He’s been almost automatic on the point after touchdown in his career, and he hadn’t missed one since Week 17 of his rookie year. That being said, who knows how much differently this game could have unfolded if Gostkowski’s early missed PAT had stayed true?
Really, its only impact was the Patriots’ final offensive play, a failed two-point conversion. Even then, the Patriots had a chance to recover an onside kick. Assuming Gostkowski had made the early point-after attempt, and the one on the Patriots’ final touchdown, the Patriots would have gone to overtime. In that scenario, Gostkowski might have ended up being the hero.
Video: Brady says he’s proud of how the Patriots fought
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he was proud of how the team fought all season and for the AFC Championship game, where New England lost to Denver 18-20.