DENVER — Rob Gronkowski made most of the biggest plays for the New England Patriots in their 20-18 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game Sunday. He finished with eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown, that coming with 12 seconds remaining to bring the Patriots within two points.

But Gronkowski was frustrated with the plays he couldn’t make. He spent part of the third quarter on the sidelines when he started cramping after he made a 31-yard catch into Denver territory. He sat out the next five plays, and the Patriots were forced to settle for a 38-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

“I was actually just kind of disappointed in myself at that moment,” said Gronkowski. “I don’t know exactly why I was cramping. I prepared for this game like I have for every other game with hydration and all that, but it just got to me. I had to fight through it.

“The trainers did a great job. I had to just pound a couple of bottles of water on the sideline. I felt really full at some point, but I battled back through it.”

WHEN HE took his first snap from center Bryan Stork, Tom Brady set a record for most NFL postseason games played with 31. He had been tied with former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri.

Denver’s Peyton Manning made his 26th postseason start, second all-time among quarterbacks behind Brady.

THE LOSS dropped the Patriots to 0-3 in playoff games in Denver. They have lost two AFC championship games here, including a 26-16 decision in 2013. And Peyton Manning is now 3-1 against Brady and the Patriots in AFC championship games. He lost the first one they played against each other, in 2003, but has beaten New England three consecutive times, including 2006 with the Indianapolis Colts (38-34).

THE GAME got off to an unexpected start when the Patriots won the coin toss, calling heads, and then elected to receive – something they’ve done only twice in the last eight seasons. And the decision backfired.

Matthew Slater, who made the call for the Patriots, said he was simply told by Coach Bill Belichick to take the ball if they won the toss.

“He just said we need the ball,” said Slater. “I really didn’t ask any questions. I figured he had a reason for it. He’s thought these things through.”

After picking up a first down, New England punted and then watched as Peyton Manning directed the Broncos 83 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown, a 21-yard pass to a wide-open Owen Daniels.

THERE’S WAS more than pride and trophies at stake. Each player on the conference championship teams will receive $46,000. Players on the winning Super Bowl team will each receive $102,000, and players on the losing Super Bowl team will receive $51,000.

Going back to the previous weekend, each Patriots player received $25,000 for their 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. That bonus would just barely cover the fine Danny Amendola received for his hit on the Chiefs’ Jamell Fleming after a punt. Amendola was fined $23,152 by the NFL and is waiting for his appeal to be heard.

THERE WERE NO surprises on the inactive lists for either team. The Patriots’ list included offensive linemen Tre’ Jackson (knee) and LaAdrian Waddle (shoulder), both ruled out on Friday. Also out were defensive linemen Ismaa’ily Kitchen and Geneo Grissom, wide receiver Chris Harper (he of the muffed punt in New England’s 30-24 overtime loss at Denver in the regular season), linebacker Jonathan Bostic and safety Tavon Wilson.

That meant Patriots linebacker Kevin Snyder, signed off the practice squad Saturday, was active for the first time all season. Snyder played at Rutgers, and we all know how much Belichick loves Rutgers players.

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