There weren't many great moments by either road team on this final Super-less Sunday of the season -- the Cardinals underperformed in every capacity in Carolina. But there was one performance worth recognizing from one massive Patriot, if not for his winning heroics, for his unstoppable consistency.
Greatness on the Road winner
The top tight end in the league was Tom Brady's only big-play weapon on a day when big plays were hard to come by. Denver's front seven crushed the Patriots quarterback all day, hitting Brady 20 times and throwing off his rhythm with his wide receiver slants. With an ineffectual running game getting the New England offense nowhere and no serviceable wideouts to speak of lining up outside the numbers, Brady's only outlet on the day was Gronk.
Gronkowski had quite a day, finishing with eight catches for 144 yards and one touchdown. He came down with multiple big grabs and chunk yardage en route to his second-best playoff performance of his career -- Gronk's top showing (10-145-3) came in 2011 against, you guessed it, Denver. Brady connected with Gronk for five catches of 10+ yards, the last of which was a backbreaker for the Broncos.
Down 20-12 with 1:34 to go, the Patriots had a fourth-and-10 at the 50-yard line. Needing a prayer to keep the game alive, Brady tossed a bomb to Gronk down the seam as he was covered by two Broncos defenders. The perfect pass found the tight end in stride and took the Patriots to the 10-yard line. If New England had pulled out the win, it would've been the greatest play in the tandem's history.
Alas, it was not to be. Brady found Gronkowski again with 17 seconds left in the back of the end zone to cut Denver's lead to within two -- how Gronk didn't step out of bounds as he tiptoed the end line and swam through defenders defies common sense. But on the two-point conversion attempt, Brady couldn't find the tight end single-covered by backup safety Shiloh Keo out to the right. Instead, he threw across his body to a blanketed Julian Edelman and had his pass tipped and intercepted, ending the Patriots' dream of winning back-to-back Super Bowls for the second time.
Oh, if Brady had trusted his tight end just once more to make a big play, what could have been.