FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — With too many injuries and too few receivers, the New England Patriots' season is over two wins shy of a Super Bowl championship.
They may have overachieved with rookies and unproven free agents playing key roles, but they were overmatched when they ran into the best offense in the NFL.
So on Monday, LeGarrette Blount stuffed his belongings into a large trash bag, Joe Vellano left the locker room carrying his helmet with an autographed football inside and other Patriots talked of how players persevered just to get to the AFC championship game for the third straight season.
"I'm proud of this group of guys," safety Steve Gregory said. "We had so much adversity that we overcame. By no means was it a bad season."
The Patriots (13-5) saved their worst game for the most important one, losing 26-16 to the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
The defense allowed 507 yards, the most in Bill Belichick's 14 seasons as Patriots coach. Tom Brady overthrew open receivers. And they lost another star defender when cornerback Aqib Talib hurt his knee in a collision with wide receiver Wes Welker early in the second quarter and missed the rest of the game.
It was a "deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib," Belichick said Monday.
Not so, Denver coach John Fox said.
"Wes Welker's a great player, high integrity," he said. "We were not doing anything with intent."
Welker would still be with the Patriots if they hadn't let him leave in free agency before the season. Now they face the same decision with other valuable players — Talib, Blount, wide receiver Julian Edelman, center Ryan Wendell and linebacker Brandon Spikes.
"I'm not even thinking about that right now," Edelman said. "I'm thinking about the fellas in this locker room, the coaches, all the hard work we put in and this season."
Edelman led the Patriots with 105 catches after Welker left, Talib was chosen for the Pro Bowl, Blount rushed for 431 yards and eight touchdowns in the three games before managing just 6 yards on five carries against Denver, Wendell started all 36 games the past two seasons and Spikes was an outstanding run stopper.
The Patriots can ill afford to lose Edelman, their only receiver with more than 54 catches. And they certainly can use a deep threat.
The only player who clearly filled that role in Tom Brady's 14 seasons with the team was Randy Moss, a Patriot for just three full seasons before being traded four games into the 2010 season. Four of their top five receivers from 2012 weren't with the team this season.