DENVER – Tom Brady was asked after New England fell in the AFC championship game if the playoff losses get harder as he gets older.
And he started comparing them. The two Super Bowl losses were tough. Other times the Patriots got to the AFC championship game and lost were tough, like last year's loss in the AFC title game to Baltimore. Sunday's 26-16 loss to Denver was certainly difficult.
As he stood at the podium and solemnly and took blame for another playoff disappointment it was clear that Brady, at least from the end of the 2004 season to now, is probably closer to the popular perception of Manning than the popular view of himself. The quarterback once anointed the game's next ultimate winner hasn't won a championship in a long time.
Manning is the playoff loser with the regular-season stats and Brady is the playoff winner, right? Manning has won a Super Bowl more recently than Brady. He has won three conference championships, more than Brady has in the last nine years. And in three AFC championship games, Manning is 2-1 against Brady.
Brady is just 8-8 in his last 16 playoff games. The last time he won a Super Bowl was almost nine years ago. Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens were the stars on the other side in that game. So, yeah, it was a while ago.
He was 27 then. On Sunday, the 36-year-old lamented another missed opportunity.
"Anytime you come up short of what you're trying to accomplish, it's not a great feeling," Brady said. "We have a good team. We just didn't play well enough today."
And, just like it was and is unfair to judge Manning on not winning enough championships, it would be unfair to judge Brady – without any doubt one of the greatest players in NFL history – on what is now a long (for the Patriots, anyway) Super Bowl drought.
The Patriots never should have gotten this far. They lost so much since the end of last season, via free agency, injuries or Aaron Hernandez's arrest. As Sunday's game went on, it was clear that Denver was simply a better team. Manning is great, perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, but he also has an exceptional team around him.
Brady needed to be perfect, like Manning years ago when the Patriots had the best roster in the NFL and Manning's Colts couldn't match their overall talent. And, like Manning years ago when he was trying to get past New England, Brady wasn't perfect.
Brady had Julian Edelman wide open down the field in the first quarter off a play-action fake. It would have been a touchdown but Brady overthrew him. Late in the second quarter, Austin Collie somehow got free down the sideline. Brady couldn't hit him either. If Brady could have hit either throw, maybe the game would have played out differently. He was 24-of-38 for 277 yards and a touchdown. Those are solid numbers but he also misfired on more than a few throws. Then again, he didn't have many receivers who could get open for him. New England didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, after the Broncos took a 23-3 lead. Brady is an all-time great, but wasn't great on Sunday.
The Patriots' locker room isn't a place for much in-depth self-analysis ("I just overthrew 'em," Brady said when asked what happened on the two throws to Edelman and Collie), but without getting too specific Brady said he could have done more.
"Anytime we lose there's things I could do better," Brady said. "Certainly there are things I wish I could have done better today."
The Patriots wouldn't have made it this far without Brady, obviously. He played through a hand injury during the season. Despite key injuries at every turn, the Patriots went 12-4 and made the AFC championship game. Brady played great and did a marvelous job taking his team as far as he could. In the end, the Patriots just weren't better than Manning's team. Manning can relate.
The years of the Patriots destroying the rest of the league and landing in the Super Bowl were long ago. Now they're the NFL's annual oh-so-close team.
"I have a lot of love for a lot of those guys over there, their team and their organization and a lot of respect for them, and I feel bad for them," said Broncos receiver Wes Welker, a great player who New England let walk this offseason. "I've been in that situation they're in right now."
The legacies of Bill Belichick and Brady will be forever linked. It has been a while since Belichick has won a title, as well. He had perhaps his best year this season, getting a beat-up team a step from the Super Bowl. But when cornerback Aqib Talib was knocked out of Sunday's game, giving Manning a target to pick on with his Pro Bowl receiver Demaryius Thomas, all the Xs and Os in the world weren't going to help the Patriots.
"We went against another good football team, and they were better than we were today," Belichick said. "Give them credit for what they did; they did a good job."
It's incredibly difficult to win a Super Bowl, which is why New England's run of three titles in four years early this century was so amazing. This season, the Patriots got everything they could out of their team. None of that mattered after the game. New England's players just kept saying they didn't get the result they wanted.
When Manning took the final knee of the game to kill the clock, he immediately turned to the Patriots sideline and went to seek out Brady and shake his hand, the gracious winner who is headed to the Super Bowl in two weeks comforting the fellow legend whose season came up just short yet again.
It has been quite a role reversal for the two.
- - - - - - -