DENVER -- The New England Patriots finally lost one player too many.
When cornerback Aqib Talib went out, Peyton Manning went to work and a New England team that made it to the AFC title game with a banged-up roster and a run-heavy offense simply ran out of answers.
Manning picked apart a depleted secondary and the Patriots fell a game short of the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season with a 26-16 loss to Denver on Sunday.
"We had to make some plays, have something, maybe a break, go our way, but we couldn’t get there," offensive lineman Logan Mankins said.
It was that kind of day in what has been a tumultuous season for the Patriots (13-5). They lost big names early (Aaron Hernandez) and late (Rob Gronkowski), but still found a way to keep things rolling as they made it to their third straight conference championship game.
They needed to play flawlessly against Manning and his high-flying offense. They avoided turnovers and only committed two penalties, but they gained only 64 yards on the ground and didn’t get enough defensive stops, and Denver gained 507 total yards.
"The bottom line was they just did a better job than we did," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "That’s really the bottom line. I don’t think it’s about any one player or any one play."
New England had to abandon the run game early after falling behind. LeGarrette Blount couldn’t get on track, not as he did the previous week against Indy when he ran for 166 yards and scored four TDs. The big, burly back was held to 6 yards on five attempts.
Surprised Denver was able to stop the ground game?
"Yeah," Blount said.
Any reason for it?
"They stopped us," Blount simply said.
Losing Talib certainly didn’t help the situation. Talib limped to the sideline early in the second quarter with what was announced as a rib injury.
Later, it was changed to a knee ailment.
No matter the injury, the standout defensive back was done for the day. Talib figured heavily in the Patriots’ plans to neutralize one of Manning’s many weapons, receiver Demaryius Thomas.
After all, he held Thomas to a season-low 41 yards in a 34-31 overtime win on Nov. 24.
Once Talib left, Manning looked for Thomas often as he hauled in seven catches for 134 yards and a score to help the Broncos (15-3) advance to their first Super Bowl since winning back-to-back titles following the ‘97 and ‘98 seasons.
"Aqib became a key player for us," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "Losing him, it’s not an easy thing."
After the game, Talib hobbled out of the locker room. He didn’t say much, other than he was "upset" about the injury and that his desire to return was "very bad."
Talib was shaken up when he ran into former Patriots receiver Wes Welker on a pass play over the middle.
Talib stayed on the ground for several minutes before walking off the field. He was examined on the bench and headed to the locker room briefly before returning to the sideline.
A sixth-year veteran, Talib has been one of New England’s top cornerbacks.
"I wish he would’ve been able to go back and play," Blount said. "To get this far and not finish it, it (stinks)."
With Manning efficiently running the offense, controlling the time of possession (Denver held onto the ball more than 11 minutes longer) and turning long drives into points, Tom Brady and the Patriots were forced to abandon the run, which has been their staple lately.
"They’ve got a pretty good offense and they’ve done that all season," said Brady, who finished 24 of 38 for 277 yards. "Once they get the ball they’ve got a lot of guys they can throw the ball to and a lot of those guys made plays today. They made a lot more plays than we did.
"Certainly, there are things I wish I could have done better to help us win."