Ferocious Denver defense leaves New England’s star quarterback feeling deflated

DENVER – He walked in with his eyes down, shoulders streaked with grass stains and pants caked with mud. Tom Brady’s left elbow was bleeding, and there was a streak of red on his forearm.

“A tough day, man,” the Patriots quarterback said. “Tough day.”

Brady hadn’t just been outdueled by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. He had been mauled. The Broncos, with their NFL-best defense and a fearsome pass rush, smashed through New England’s offensive line and put Brady on the ground 20 times while pushing to a 20-18 victory and to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.

After a long shower, Brady emerged with three bandages on his left arm; welts ran down his right forearm, and when he pulled a white shirt over his shoulders, he took it slow. He held on to a railing after answering questions from reporters, walking slowly after a long and brutal day.

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This was the way the 2015 season ended for the league’s finest quarterback, taking a beating after a season in which Brady seemed more driven to prove himself than ever. A little more than a year ago, DeflateGate cast a shadow over the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl win under Brady and Coach Bill Belichick, and the quarterback spent part of his offseason in courtrooms, defending himself against a league calling him a cheat.

Another championship would have been sweet vindication, perhaps his finest work considering the Patriots’ many injured players throughout the season, but instead Brady didn’t seem himself until late in the fourth quarter. He led a comeback attempt, vintage Brady, finding tight end Rob Gronkowski on a deep post and then completing a touchdown pass to his star tight end. A classic finish, though, required Brady to complete a two-point conversion; his pass bounced off wide receiver Julian Edelman’s hands and was intercepted by Denver’s Bradley Roby.

“It would’ve been a fun overtime,” Brady said later, forcing a smile.

No doubt, though it almost definitely would have meant the Broncos reintroducing Brady to the turf a few more times. Von Miller, Denver’s star outside linebacker, almost toyed with right tackle Marcus Cannon on Sunday. He spun around him and rushed past him, slamming into Brady as often as possible. New England center Bryan Stork did his quarterback no favors, either, occasionally snapping the ball to Brady’s right; after one poor snap near the Patriots’ own goal line, Miller victimized backup lineman Cameron Fleming and sacked Brady.

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The Patriots, rattled and with Brady missing his usual precision throughout the first half, tried new formations and motions; they shelved deep passes for quick throws. They switched up their cadence, desperately trying to buy Brady time and disrupt the Broncos’ timing, but Miller and linebacker DeMarcus Ware kept taking turns chasing Brady.

Ware, by the way, had issued a challenge earlier in the week. Most everyone in the football universe was looking forward to Brady-Manning 17, one more showdown with the Super Bowl on the line. Ware reminded his teammates that they could make Brady’s life difficult at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. So Brady’s typical pass, from snap to release, is 1.8 seconds? Well the Broncos, Ware said he told defenders during a meeting, would have to get to him in 1.7.

Often, Brady could get the ball out – but he had to pick himself up from the turf a moment later.

“I really don’t know what to say,” Patriots offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer said. “It’s a strong defense. They were the No. 1 seed, and they showed it today.”

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After one hit, when defensive end Malik Jackson plowed into Brady, the quarterback flung the ball deep as Jackson leveled him. He stayed down, appearing to injure his chest, as Darian Stewart intercepted the pass.

“It was just tough to get into a rhythm,” Brady said.

It just didn’t look right, Brady so uncomfortable. He is, if nothing else, cool in these situations. Brady’s legend is that he is one of the most clutch quarterbacks in league history, and for three quarters Sunday, his rhythm was off. Manning wasn’t dazzling, often firing his passes high and missing a touchdown that could have punched Denver’s ticket to Santa Clara early, but Brady just seemed off.

Then, finally, something happened. That switch flipped in Brady, who led the Patriots down the field, tossed the deep pass to Gronkowski and found him again for the touchdown.

“My thoughts at the moment: Get . . . open,” Gronkowski said, using his trademark colorful language.

Indeed, overtime would have been fun. Two of the best ever squaring off, a little more drama for the history books. But that would have missed the point: This game was never about Manning vs. Brady; it was Denver’s remarkable defense against Brady, and it was the defense that won. It is the Broncos’ defense that gives them a legitimate shot to defeat the NFC champion Carolina Panthers in two weeks.

As for Brady, who will turn 39 before the 2016 season begins, he said he wasn’t even sure he would watch the Super Bowl. He was uncertain what he would do, where he would go or what would be on his mind beyond the aftermath of this game.

There was only one thing he could say for sure: After taking this beating, he needed to go home and heal.