DENVER — Patriots fans turned away from their televisions late Sunday afternoon, ended home parties or walked out of sports bars early. Watch the Denver Broncos and their fans exult? No thanks.

Denver beat New England 26-16 in the game for the AFC championship and the trip to New Jersey for the Super Bowl in two weeks. Denver gets the glory and the attention.

The Patriots reach for consolation. Yes, they played well in overcoming injuries to star players. They lived through the circus of seeing a teammate arrested and charged with involvement in a murder. They watched a popular and key player leave for another team – the Broncos.

That’s why the Patriots were underdogs Sunday. And underdogs do lose.

Teams that win season after season can lose. Overachievers don’t always achieve. A brilliant football coach can suddenly have few answers once the game begins. That’s the reality that smacked the Patriots and their fans in the face Sunday. The better team won, and it was Denver, not New England. Maybe a much better team, led by one of the best quarterbacks the game will see.

Yes, you like to say it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. What happens when the bigger dog is full of fight? It wins.

The Broncos exposed the Patriots’ flaws Sunday. With Rob Gronkowski rehabbing a torn-up knee, Wes Welker gone from the Patriots and playing for the Broncos, and the disgraced Aaron Hernandez awaiting trial in prison, quarterback Tom Brady didn’t have the tools to win.

Brady isn’t the young man who led the Patriots to a win over the touted St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl 12 years ago. The Patriots were underdogs in that game and won. It was the first act of the long-running Bill Belichick-Brady show, the genius coach and his best disciple.

Three Super Bowl victories set the gold standard in New England. You cling to that standard when everything about sports, and football in particular, evolves.

Brady is 36 and a quarterback in decline. He needed a full toolbox for Sunday’s game. That Belichick didn’t, and couldn’t, give him one is a reason they lost.

Brady was a backup to Drew Bledsoe when he joined the Patriots out of Michigan. Backups do get their chances to shine, and Brady did and continues to do so. He is a future Hall of Famer.

On Sunday, the Patriots’ backups and pickups who were thrust into starring roles earlier in the season couldn’t recapture the magic from other games this season. Brady, Gronkowski, Logan Mankins and Stephen Gostkowski can all consistently hit the high notes of their performances. It’s that consistency that separates them from the others. Belichick got maximum effort from his next men up, which the backups were called. It wasn’t enough. That’s why Belichick praised his players after Sunday’s game, and again Monday after the team returned to Gillette Stadium.

He was proud of his team in defeat. He isn’t always.

Belichick blamed himself again Monday. He thought he had the best plan to beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, but quickly learned that Manning and his teammates would shred that plan.

Not because of Patriots’ breakdowns. The Broncos were better, and that’s hard to accept. You thought Manning would fall behind, get rattled, and do the things that lose games.

The belief among Patriots fans was that Broncos Coach John Fox could not match wits with Belichick, forgetting that the Patriots needed an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the Super Bowl 10 years ago to beat Fox’s Carolina Panthers.

Sometimes, people forget that Belichick and the Patriots don’t have a monopoly on talent and intelligence and work ethic.

Belichick’s father, Steve, was a longtime football coach at the Naval Academy. From his father, Bill Belichick learned that after a game is played, it’s in the record book. You can’t undo anything. You learn.

On Monday, Belichick said he might not have time to watch the Super Bowl in two weeks. He has to learn from Sunday’s loss and the 17 games that preceded it. He will decide who stays on the Patriots’ roster, who doesn’t, and who’s added. His mind is already on the 2014 season.

Brady can’t play forever and Belichick can’t coach forever. Neither indicated he will walk away from football soon. But the end is nearing and that is worrisome.

Patriots fans relished the future after the first Super Bowl was won. On Sunday, the Patriots lost, one game shy of the Super Bowl for the second straight year. Now the future is more uncertain than ever.

You’ll live with that. You’re a Patriots fan.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway