New England Patriots placekicker Stephen Gostkowski bends over after missing a first half extra point against the Denver Broncos during the AFC Championship game at Sport Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on January 24, 2016. Photo by Gary C. Caskey/UPI | License Photo
DENVER -- A missed extra point early on proved pivotal in the New England Patriots' 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in Sunday's AFC championship game.
The Patriots scored a touchdown with 12 seconds remaining on a 4-yard pass from quarterback Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski, but had to go for the tying 2-point conversion.
Place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed wide-right on an extra-point try following New England's initial touchdown in the first quarter, a 1-yard run by running back Steven Jackson. It was his first missed conversion this season, also the first season the NFL instituted a longer 33-yard PAT to not make them so automatic.
Gostkowski heaped blame on himself after the game.
"I just feel terrible," he 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. It's not a good feeling."
Teammates said Gostkowski, one of the game's most accurate kickers, was being too hard on himself.
"Stephen does a lot for this team," Gronkowski said. "I'm proud he's part of this organization. I love playing with him. He definitely shouldn't put the heat on himself. It's a team game. You win as a team; you lose as a team."
Brady also spoke up in support of his crestfallen teammate.
"He's a great player," Brady said of Gostkowski. "He's the best. Everyone misses them at some point and there was plenty of football left. We knew what the situation was."
TAKING A HIT: As well as the Broncos' defense played in helping Denver advance to the Super Bowl, it did take some lumps.
Both starting safeties left the game in the second half with injuries. Darian Stewart was sidelined in the third quarter with a knee injury and T.J Ward exited in the fourth with an ankle injury.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said after that he couldn't say much about their status but was also mindful that the Super Bowl was two weeks away.
"I really don't know," Kubiak said. "The only thing I'd say is maybe T.J. is feeling a little better than 'Stew. I don't know what that should mean but we've got two weeks."
A FINE LINE: Patriots coach Bill Belichick was both terse and philosophical in his post-game remarks.
He had a one word response when he was asked if he had any regrets about the game: "No."
But he was relatively expansive in his opening statement, starting with congratulating the Broncos.
"They have a lot of good players. They played a bit better than we did," Belichick said. "I'm proud of our guys. They fought right to the very end, like they always do. We just couldn't make enough plays. It's disappointing, a disappointing result.
"There were a lot of big plays in the game. Any one of them probably could have made a bit of a difference. It's such a fine line today between winning and losing, that we all could have done a little bit more and it might have had a different result, but it wasn't. It's a crash landing to the end of the season like there usually is in the National Football League."
MILLER TIME: Broncos linebacker Von Miller's play was at the center of Denver's standout defensive performance that throttled New England's offense.
His interception paved the way for a Denver touchdown and he led the Broncos' relentless pass rush with 2.5 sacks of Brady.
He finished with five tackles and his sack total was the most in a playoff game in Broncos' history.
"He's been that way all year," Kubiak said. "He's been a special player."
Miller said the Broncos pass rush was complemented by the tight coverage in the secondary.
"We started the week saying that we need to be consistent in the secondary, consistent in the rush and that was going to do it for us," Miller said. "I think we were able to do it today."
PEYTON'S SEASON: Denver quarterback Peyton Manning's up-and-down season includes a remarkable twist that has the five-time NFL MVP back in the Super Bowl.
Manning, 39, was making just his second start since returning from a foot injury that had sidelined him for seven weeks, but he looked especially sharp in the first half, when he threw two touchdown passes to tight end Owen Daniels. It was a lead the Broncos never gave up.
Manning's Super Bowl appearance may very well be the last hurrah in a phenomenal career and he went out of his way to acknowledge his unique journey this season.
"There's no question it's been a different season," Manning said. "My role has been different, and my contributions are different. I'm fortunate and grateful that I have the opportunity to contribute still in some way, and it's a great honor going back to the Super Bowl, playing in Super Bowl 50. I'm really looking forward to it."