The last hurrah of a Patriots team that provided New England with plenty of thrills this season was unexpectedly silent, swallowed up by the deafening roar of Broncos' fans that is likely still resonating throughout the Rocky Mountains.
Peyton Manning never blinked in the solar glare of his latest matchup with long-time rival/nemisis Tom Brady, who still holds a 10-5 edge in head-to-head meetings between the two premier quarterbacks of this generation.
In fact, Manning was at his gun-slinging best while slaying the Patriots, passing for 400 yards and two touchdowns in Denver's 26-16 AFC championship game win Sunday.
The victory silenced Manning's critics for the time being, earning him the chance to not only win a second Super Bowl ring, but the opportunity to be the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams when the Broncos square off against the Seattle Seahawks at the Meadowlands on Feb. 2.
As Manning heads off to the swamps of Jersey in an attempt to cement his legacy as one of the game's all-time greats, Brady, owner of three Super Bowl rings, whose place at the head table of NFL quarterbacking royalty has long been secure, is left to ponder the future of a Patriots' club that likely only has only so many championship runs left in it with him calling the shots.
Bill Belichick's coaching genus, coupled with Brady's arm, guile and guts, are the primary reasons the Patriots were able to overcome Aaron Hernandez' off-season arrest on murder charges and season-ending injures to stalwarts Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles), Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral) and Rob Gronkowski (torn ACL) and compile a 13-5 record.
Still, the Broncos exposed the Patriots' biggest weaknesses — smallish receivers who don't have the necessary breakaway speed to consistently stretch the field, a defensive secondary that lacks depth (especially when shutdown cornerback Aqib Talib isn't in the lineup) and an inconsistent running game that produces big numbers against sub-par defenses (Buffalo and Indianapolis) but goes no place fast when pitted against tough physical defensive fronts (Cincinnati, Carolina, Denver).
Whether you believe the fact this edition of the Patriots finished a win short of the franchise's eighth Super Bowl appearance is a miracle or a mirage, the truth is the future is now for Brady.
Brady is 36 and the sand in the hourglass of his Hall of Fame career will run out sooner rather than later. Brady is still at the top of his game, but he needs some better weapons to work with (I'll still take Wes Welker, cheap shot artist or not, over Danny Amendola any day).
Manning has an abundance of explosive charges at his disposal with the Broncos, while Brady is trying to ignite an attack that this season featured primarily unheralded receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Amendola and Julian Edelman, who stepped up big-time and filled the void left by Welker's departure to Denver by finishing the regular season with 105 receptions for 1,056 yards and six TDs.
The Patriots can try and fill holes in the draft or free agency. Barring any trades, the Patriots have the 29th pick in the first round, single picks in the second, third, fourth and seventh rounds, as well as two picks in the sixth round. These picks will add depth but will they bring much in the way of immediate big-time playmaking value on either side of the ball?
Patriot fans have grown accustomed to winning, and any season that ends before the first weekend in February is considered a disappointment.
Fortunately, the Patriots could probably enter next season as presently constructed and still finish first in the hapless AFC East. No team other than the Patriots has had a winning record in the AFC East over the past three seasons, and the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are still very much in rebuilding mode.
As long as Brady is healthy the Patriots will be a playoff team in 2014. The real question is will the Patriots be legitimate Super Bowl contenders next fall?
The feeling here is there is a pretty big gap in talent between the Patriots and the NFL elite — Seahawks, Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers (when healthy) — at the moment.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots try and close this gap before the window of opportunity having Brady in the lineup affords closes on them for good.