It’s still hard to believe the season is over for the Patriots. Virtually no one in New England thought the Denver Broncos had any chance of knocking off the Pats in the AFC championship, yet it’s the Broncos getting ready to face the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Sunday’s conference title game had us scratching our heads from the start. Winning the coin toss, the Patriots elected to receive to start the game for the first time this season. Twelve times the Pats had won a coin toss this year, and they chose to defer until the second half each time.

If that was meant to give the Pats an early score and put pressure on Peyton Manning, the plan backfired spectacularly. The Broncos defense – which gave Brady fits all day long – forced New England to punt after five plays. Then Manning turned the tables early with a 21-yard touchdown strike to Owen Daniels on Denver’s first drive.

One touchdown should not dictate an entire game, but that sequence seemed to embolden Denver throughout the first half. So did New England’s early play-calling. In the first half, the Patriots ran 14 plays on first down. Tom Brady handed the ball off on the majority of those first downs – eight, to be exact.

The Pats didn’t get to the AFC championship by running the ball. And they didn’t get out to a lead at any point of Sunday’s game because of the running game. Only two of those eight first-down rushes in the first half resulted in a gain of more than 2 yards. In fact, those first-down runs netted an average of 2 yards. That put the Patriots in long passing situations, allowing the Broncos’ defensive line to come hard after Brady.

Brady was only sacked four times, but according to NFL stats he was hit 20 times. That’s nearly four times as often as he was hit on average during the regular season. It was a far cry from the quick-release offense we saw a week earlier against the Chiefs.

There were plenty of questionable moments in this one. The biggest may have been their choice to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter while trailing by eight points. Brady completed his pass to Julian Edelman, but the receiver was immediately brought down by Chris Harris, Jr. for a 1-yard loss.

A field goal there would’ve cut the lead to five points. Brady’s late touchdown drive would’ve been a go-ahead strike rather than cutting the lead to two points.

That fourth-down play was one of two chances the Patriots had to kick a relatively easy field goal in the second half. Why go for it each time?

“Because of the scoring situation in the game,” Belichick told reporters after the game.

Maybe we’ll learn more about the thought process as the days and weeks roll on.

Maybe not.

Certainly kicker Stephen Gostkowski would’ve loved to have a chance to redeem himself for a missed extra point in the first half that ultimately dictated the final score.

Gostkowski – the best kicker in the league – tried to take full responsibility for the team’s loss.

“It was my fault,” Gostkowski said in Denver. “One hundred percent.”

No, it wasn’t. Gostkowski hadn’t missed an extra point in 10 years. He’d connected on 523 straight.

So it was stunning to see him push one wide right, but there was plenty of other blame to go around.

In fact, why was this game even in Denver?

The Patriots could have wrapped up home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs in the final weeks of the regular season. Fans will wonder why New England elected to kick the ball to the Jets in overtime, and why they rolled over in Miami.

Those are questions that will linger in our minds. Questions we’ll be stuck asking ourselves when the rest of the country settles in to watch the Broncos and Panthers line up on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California.

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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