Again the New England Patriots went into the AFC Championship Game undermanned, and for the second year in a row, they paid the price.
Peyton Manning completely outplayed Tom Brady, continuing a disturbing trend for Brady recently and one that he needs to figure out this offseason. Brady is now 8-8 in his past 16 playoff games. But the bigger concern for the Patriots is simply the lack of game-changing talent on either side of the ball.
Manning has far more to work with than Brady, and it showed repeatedly on the field Sunday.
The Patriots defense struggled to literally get a hand on Manning all game, giving him plenty of time in the pocket to run the Patriots defense ragged. There was absolutely no pass rush to speak of, leaving the defense out on the field all Sunday. The Broncos controlled the ball for a total time of 35 minutes and 44 seconds, mixing the pass and the run with ease while racking up over 500 yards of total offense.
Offensively, the Patriots need to address the lack of weapons that Brady has to work with. Brady struggled during the game and missed on two early chances to change the game, missing a wide-open Julian Edelman early and later Austin Collie. Both plays could have been potential touchdowns that would have changed the complexion of the game. For a quarterback of Brady's pedigree, it was very surprising to see him miss on both plays.
It's a testament to the coaching of Bill Belichick and the play of Brady that this team even made it to the AFC Championship Game looking at this roster. Both men should be commended with keeping this team together and going 12-4 in the process.
The Patriots had to overcome numerous injuries to stars like Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo while dealing with the off-the-field arrest of star tight end Aaron Hernandez to reach this point. Losing tight end Rob Gronkowski might have been the key injury, but the Patriots can't point to his absence alone as the reason why they lost this game.
The Patriots have to bring in players who can create separation and allow Brady to make completions without having two defenders hanging on every target. The Patriots have average-to-below-average talent at wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and in the secondary. Brady and Belichick have been able to mask many of the Patriots' flaws over the years due to their individual greatness.
But it's not enough anymore.
No one will give the Patriots credit for anything other than reaching the Super Bowl. New England has built a model franchise when it comes to success on the field during the regular season, but it's been nine years since New England last won a Super Bowl with Brady and Belichick.
The window is starting to close for the 36-year-old Brady and the Patriots. If they want to get back to the Super Bowl and win, they will need to add serious impact talent to the offense and defense this offseason.
The Patriots need to look at this game and realize that the better team won because it had more talented players. It's that simple.