This was not the ending they had in mind. Screw the injuries, before and during the game. Screw the odds. Screw the predictions.
In order for the Patriots to win in Denver, they needed to play some great football. After a string of three extremely complete games, I thought the Patriots had it in themselves to pull off the upset. Instead, they weren't great. They were merely good.
Sunday represented an unfortunate microcosm for the entire 2013 season, with key injuries (sorry Aqib Talib!), inconsistent calls (Wes Welker didn't throw himself into an intentional pick? The Patriots didn't commit a penalty in the second half, apart from the offsetting pass interference calls on the second play of the third quarter? Yeah, sure), the coaches made some questionable play calls in the first half, the Patriots fell behind, and then the Patriots made a comeback late in the game. The Patriots finished the game as a good team. They weren't great.
The magic ran out. The Broncos demolished the Patriots wet-paper-bag defensive approach, while the offense couldn't get moving in time to salvage a slow start.
Good. Not great.
Tom Brady put together one of the greatest seasons in his illustrious careers, but when the plays appeared against Denver, his throws weren't on target. He was good in the game. Brady wasn't great.
Bill Belichick led one of the best coaching seasons in recent history, yet the players did not seem ready for the task, watching Peyton Manning conduct five consecutive 60+ yard drives, and forcing them to punt only once. Belichick wasn't great.
Josh McDaniels somehow cobbled together one of the most dangerous offenses in the league, but for the sixth playoff loss in a row, the offense was nonexistent and some of the play calls were questionable. McDaniels wasn't great.
The front office pulled together one of the strongest 53s, yet their marquee signing was targeted once the entire game and dropped it. Not great.
The defense managed to pressure Peyton Manning a mere five times on his 43 drop backs. Not great.
Not great, not great, not great. Certainly not good enough.
Whenever a game brings back memories of the 2010 playoff loss to the Jets, the Patriots can't be in a good position. The Patriots seemed to be out of the game by halftime, deflated by the loss of Talib, and never really recovered. Whether they were outmanned by talent (yes), or coaching (also yes), the Patriots just weren't great.
With that in mind, some of the play choices from the Patriots need to be lauded or critiqued:
1) The deep throw to Matthew Slater on 3rd and 3 is inexcusable. It was his first target on the season. It was the seventh time they've drawn that play for Slater and it's worked one time (in the very first week of 2011). Brady's deep ball has never been his strong point.
His 2007 season with Randy Moss yielded a completion percentage of 40.6% on 20+ yard throws. This 2013 season saw that rate fall to 24.6%, down from 32.4% in 2012, 36.6% in 2011, and 38.9% in 2010. There's no chance that was the smartest play and it brought the Patriots defense back on the field after the three-and-out.
2) Belichick punting from the Denver 39 yard line is actually the smart call. In the past decade, there have been 10 attempts of this distance, or longer, in Denver, with 5 of them converting (off topic: Sebastian Janikowski is responsible for 20% of the league's 57+ yard field goal attempts in the past decade).
A 50% rate isn't enough to convince anyone that the kick would be the smart idea, even in the high altitude, and the Patriots still were in a close game. No need to give the Broncos a 50% chance at great field position. Unfortunately, Talib was injured on the ensuing drive, but at the time the punt was the smart choice.
3) Going for it on 4th and three was the smart decision, even though they were within field goal range (46 yarder). There was 2:25 left in the third quarter and the Patriots were down 17. A field goal makes it two touchdowns, which seems reasonable with a little of one quarter of play remaining. The issue, however, is that the Broncos had already pulled off two 7+ minute drives. They had scored on four consecutive drives. The Patriots would have needed the defense to make a stop in order to have a chance, which they hadn't proven they could do with Talib on the sidelines, and they believed that Brady gave them the best chance to convert.
Of course, Logan Mankins threw a horrible block and Brady was sacked in under 2 seconds after the snap, but the reasoning for going for it was sound. Even if they had opted for the field goal to go down 14 points, they only had two more drives for the rest of the game. While both of them were touchdowns, the defense would have had to come up with stops for the rest of the game, which they clearly were unable to do.
While the outcomes were less than desired, there was still justifiable reasoning behind some of the more questionable plays in the game. Yet in the theme for the day, the Patriots weren't great enough to execute the plays in order to win.
However, for all of the shortcomings from Sunday's debacle, the foundation of success is laid for next season. Brady will be able to heal the torn ligament in his hand. All the other injured players will return. Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower put together two very strong games. Aaron Dobson played well after coming back from an injury.
The Patriots remain one of the youngest units in all of football. All of their rookies and sophomores have time under their belt and they'll be rejoined by the veterans coming back from the injured reserve. Julian Edelman could, and should, return after being one of the few great players on the Patriots roster. Shane Vereen was second in targets. Hell, even third option Austin Collie could return.
The Patriots found out that their remaining pieces were enough to be a good team in 2013. Maybe 2014 will be the season they become great.