DENVER — Tom Brady isn’t perfect. Stephen Gostkowski? He almost always is.
While Brady made the best out of a less-than-ideal day, the single mistake Gostkowski made — missing his first extra point in nine years — played a big role in New England missing out on a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots’ reign as the NFL champions ended with a 20-18 loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game Sunday.
"At the end, we just couldn’t make enough plays," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Disappointing, disappointing result. There’s such a fine line today between winning and losing."
The NFL wanted to spice things up by moving the extra point back this season. They certainly did at that.
With a chance to tie the game early, Gostkowski sent his extra point fluttering off to the right. This from a kicker who made an NFL-record 523 consecutive PATs. It put Brady and the offence in chase mode the rest of the way.
"I just feel terrible," Gostkowski said. "All day, these guys put their bodies and lives on the line, and for me to come out here and miss a kick, it’s a nightmare scenario. I can’t even explain how I feel right now. It’s just a complete shock and I let a lot of people down."
Not that his teammates were blaming the right foot of Gostkowski in a game where the Patriots (13-5) turned the ball over twice on interceptions and two more times on downs.
"You definitely shouldn’t put the heat on him. It’s a team game," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "You can’t put it on the hands of Steph. There’s no way."
This was also far from Brady’s best performance. He was constantly hounded by Denver’s top-ranked defence, especially Von Miller as the linebacker finished with an interception and 2 1/2 sacks. Brady was 27 of 56 for 310 yards and two interceptions.
He led the Patriots on a TD drive in the waning seconds, hitting Gronkowski for a 4-yard score on fourth down. Pulling within two points at 20-18 and 12 seconds left, the Patriots went for the 2-point conversion.
Aqib Talib stepped in front of Brady’s pass and deflected it toward the sky. Bradley Roby made the pick.
The Broncos (14-4) recovered the onside kick and, after a knee by Manning, the celebration began. Manning is now 3-1 against Brady when it has counted the most — with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
"I’m sure everyone can look at different plays throughout the game when it’s that close and say, ‘Man I wish I had made that play,"’ Brady said. "But I’m proud of the way we fought and we certainly fought to the end."
A big game decided near the goal line? The Patriots have certainly been in that situation before. They won the Super Bowl a season ago with an interception at the goal line in the final seconds against Seattle.
This time, they lost a chance at a return by throwing a pick at the goal line.
"You’ve just got to go out there and make more plays," Gronkowski said.
Manning gave Brady a hearty handshake before No. 12 left the field. This town has been a house of horrors for Brady, who’s now 2-7 in the Mile High City.
"We just didn’t play well enough. You know, you get to the AFC championship and you get down, you’ve got to play well," Patriots safety Devin McCourty. "You’ve got to play, really your best football of the year. Today, we just fell short. A couple of plays here and there where they made better plays really were the deciding factors of the game."
The Patriots had several promising drives in the fourth quarter end when they gave up the ball on downs. The Patriots drove to the Denver 16, only to be stopped on a fourth-and-1 when Julian Edelman was tackled short of the first line after catching a floating pass.
Later, the Patriots faced fourth-and-6 at the Denver 14, but Brady missed Gronkowski over the middle.
Asked why he eschewed field goals, Belichick simply said: "’Cause of the scoring situation in the game."
"There were a lot of plays in the game, a lot of big plays," Belichick added. "We had a chance at the end.’