The New England Patriots have defied the laws of parity since 2001.
If Tom Brady and Bill Belichick had added that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring to their collection, it would have been the crown jewel of their careers. The fact that their opportunity slipped away in Denver, though, doesn't detract from their legacy.
Three Super Bowl wins began their legacy, but eight trips to the AFC Championship game in 13 years is their legacy.
The Patriots are competitive year in and year out. Brady and Belichick could take your local JV high school football team to the playoffs. The fact that they nearly took this team to the Super Bowl is borderline miraculous.
"A lot of guys in here are underdogs, or undrafted guys, or not-first-round guys coming in here, stepping up and doing things that people didn't expect them to do," said running back LeGarrette Blount, "and we've come out here and proved people wrong a bunch of times this year."
They filled the gas tank with miracle comeback juice and pounded the pedal to the metal.
Down four points to the Buffalo Bills in Week 1, they found a way to win. Trailing by four points to the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, Brady engineered one of the most stunning comebacks in recent Patriots history.
That designation was ripped away when the Patriots came back from down 14 points to the Miami Dolphins, and just a few weeks later when they famously stormed back from down 24 points to the Broncos. They edged out a late win over the Houston Texans and raced back from a 12-point deficit to the Cleveland Browns.
They nearly had a chance to do it again in Denver, and down 20-3 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots still had enough gas left in the miracle tank to accelerate as they tried to regain lost ground. They cut the deficit from 17 to 10, and it seemed they'd at least have a fighting chance to make a last-minute play, but they failed on a two-point conversion that would have made it a one-score game.
Who knows how far the Patriots would have made it without key injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, Sebastian Vollmer and Brandon Spikes? Perhaps the injury to Aqib Talib was the back-breaker. The Broncos' high-powered offense punted on its first possession for only the fourth time all season, and they were held to just three points in the first quarter before Talib went down.
Short-handed at nearly every key position, the Patriots were still competitive with the runaway favorite in the AFC. They made it as far as they should have, given the circumstances. Anything else should have been considered house money.
"I'm proud of this team, proud to be the coach of the team. I respect the players and what the payers and the staff did in terms of their work ethic, their preparation, their mental toughness, physical toughness, playing hard every week," Belichick said. "[Besides the AFC Championship game], all the other games have literally come down to the last play, the last possession. We played very competitively all year. We just came up short five times. I wish we could have done a little better job in any of those games, especially the one yesterday. That was our season."
Belichick circled back to blaming himself for the shortcomings of the team on several occasions Sunday, so even by his own admission, he could have done a better job, but I'm not sure many coaches could have done a better job given the hand his team was dealt time after time this season.
Sure, Tom Brady missed some open receivers, and that will not sit well with his legacy as a big-game quarterback. When you consider that two of those open receiver's names were Matthew Slater and Austin Collie, though, context really begins to take shape.
The fact that we considered it possible that they could defy the odds says more about our belief in Brady and Belichick than it does about the Patriots being a better team than the Broncos.
Patriots fans can sleep easy; for once, their team lost to a better team in the playoffs.
|Patriots previous playoff losses under Bill Belichick|
|2005||Denver Broncos (2)||Divisional round||27-13|
|2006||Indianapolis Colts (3)||AFC Championship||38-34|
|2007||New York Giants (6)||Super Bowl||17-14|
|2009||Baltimore Ravens (6)||Wild card||33-14|
|2010||New York Jets (5)||Divisional round||28-21|
|2011||New York Giants (6)||Super Bowl||21-17|
|2012||Baltimore Ravens (4)||AFC Championship||28-13|
|2013||Denver Broncos (1)||AFC Championship||26-16|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
In past years, it could be argued that the Patriots lost playoff games they should have won. That was certainly the case in 2010, when the Patriots lost to the New York Jets after embarrassing them 45-3 just a month prior.
This year's loss may sting Patriots fans because it affords Peyton Manning an opportunity to extend his legacy at the expense of Brady, but there's no sense that Sunday was a missed opportunity. This was the first time the Patriots were an underdog in a playoff game since 2006. Every year since then, the Patriots have lost a winnable game to a lower seed.
A trip to the Super Bowl would have only added to their legacy as two of the greats of all time, but failing to punch that ticket doesn't detract from that legacy.
The Patriots got as far as they should have, given the hand they were dealt.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.