DENVER - Throughout the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the Patriots almost always have had championship-caliber teams. The coach/quarterback duo has won three Super Bowls and five AFC titles. They've set records and dominated the league at times.
If ever the Patriots looked vulnerable, it was this season. Yet there they were Sunday, one win away from another trip to the Super Bowl. But adversity caught up with them in a 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
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"Any time you come up short of what you're trying to accomplish, it's not a great feeling," said Brady, whose record slipped to 5-3 in AFC title games, "but I'm proud of our team and the way we fought."
Facing a Denver team that has seemed destined for Super Bowl XLVIII all season, the Patriots struggled on third down early, couldn't stop Peyton Manning and didn't make enough big plays of their own.
They also lost Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib to a knee injury early in the second quarter, and he didn't return. "As it turned out, that was a key play in the game," Belichick said.
Losing Talib was just another setback for a team that had plenty of them this season.
It started with tight end Aaron Hernandez being arrested last summer, charged with murder and jailed. The Patriots played their first six games and their last five (including the playoffs) without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. The defense lost starters Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly to injuries.
Despite all of that, the Patriots won five of their last six in the regular season and routed Indianapolis in the divisional round of the playoffs.
"This was a fun team to play for and a fun team to be a part of," guard Logan Mankins said. "There are a lot of guys that I feel are special in this locker room. We had a good year. We didn't have the outcome that we wanted, but it was still a good year."
Belichick was in no mood to appreciate the accomplishment. "[The loss] is really the only thing that's in my mind," he said. "All the rest of it is a bunch of hot air."
It's been nine seasons since the Patriots' last Super Bowl title, and with Brady turning 37 before next season, there might not be many other chances with this group. Nevertheless, the Patriots vowed to enter next season with the same goal they brought into this one.
"It's the same way it's always been, and certainly for the New England Patriots, it's to win and to win every time we take the field," Brady said. "We did a decent job to get ourselves to this position.
"We have a lot to be proud of, and we'll be back at it next year."