It's on to "Truck Day."
Peyton Manning-Tom Brady XVII went to Manning, or rather to Manning's defense, which rendered both Brady and the New England Patriots' offense largely impotent. That's why the Denver Broncos - and not the Patriots - will be headed to Santa Clara, Calif., for Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7 against the Carolina Panthers.
Once again, Denver's Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium turned into a House of Horrors for Brady. Despite finding tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone with 12 seconds left, last year's Super Bowl MVP is now 2-7 in Denver and 0-3 in playoff games there after Sunday's 20-18 loss to the Broncos. Brady had a tough day, throwing two interceptions, one of which led to a Broncos touchdown. Rattled all day long, Brady was sacked four times, got hit 20 times and couldn't muster any sustained offense.
The Patriots, who before the playoffs were hit with a rash of injuries while they went only 2-4 in their last six regular-season games, had most of their key players in uniform for Sunday's AFC Championship Game, their fifth in a row, but it didn't seem to matter.
In what could have been a bad omen, head coach Bill Belichick uncharacteristically elected to keep the ball instead of deferring after winning the coin toss, and Brady couldn't get anything going on the opening drive. The Broncos scored on the following drive, and didn't look back, although the game wasn't wrapped up until after Gronk's touchdown when the Patriots missed a two-point conversion, which would have forced overtime.
The fact that they needed a two-point conversion was due to perhaps the Patriots' most shocking and unexpected error of the day from the one player who had been automatic: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point, which would have knotted the game at 7-7, after having made 523 in a row - 463 straight in the regular season and 60 consecutive ones in the playoffs.
The Patriots also were hampered by an offensive line that couldn't outmuscle the Broncos' defenders, and by some first-half penalties that proved costly. Still, as the Patriots under the leadership of Brady and Belichick have shown in the last 15 years' worth of big games, they never quit. Nonetheless, it will be Manning who will try to win Super Bowl 50 before he makes a decision on retirement, and the Patriots who will get some down time before preparing for the NFL draft.
New England fans, meanwhile, will be on to "Truck Day" Feb. 10 - the day when the Boston Red Sox equipment van leaves Fenway Park for Fenway South, JetBlue Park, in Fort Myers Fla., in preparation for spring training and pitchers and catchers reporting on Feb. 18.
But before then, take a few moments to savor another thrilling Patriots season, which unlike last year, didn't end in a victory in the ultimate game, but added another chapter in the Belichick-Brady era. And remember, it won't last forever.