The highly anticipated 17th meeting between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady had all the drama football fans could ask for.
And yet they were robbed of more. The AFC championship could have been — and should have been — decided in overtime.
Instead, Sunday's conference title game came down to a two-point conversion attempt with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Denver Broncos picked off Brady's potentially game-tying pass to seal a 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots and secure a trip to Super Bowl 50.
The Patriots were forced to go for two because kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point after a first quarter touchdown. Before Sunday, he had made 523 in a row and connected on all 60 tries in the playoffs.
"I just feel terrible," he said after the game. "These guys work a lot, all day, put their bodies and lives on the line. For me to come out here and us lose by a point and me miss the kick, it's a nightmare scenario."
In May, league owners voted 30-2 to approve a rule that moved the line of scrimmage on an extra point from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line. Their sales pitch: The extra point had become automatic and therefore boring. Longer tries would add more intrigue.
In a cruel twist, the rule change came back to haunt one of its biggest proponents: Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"I would be in favor of not seeing (the extra point) be an over 99 percent conversion rate," he said in a January 2014 news conference. "It's virtually automatic. That's just not the way the extra point was put into the game. It was an extra point that you actually had to execute and it was executed by players who were not specialists, they were position players. It was a lot harder for them to do."
Belichick got what he wanted. During the 2014 regular season, kickers attempted more than 1,200 extra points and converted 99.3 percent (nine misses). This season, kickers succeeded on 94.1 percent of their tries.
But is this what the NFL intended? The extra point change was supposed to add excitement. On Sunday, it eliminated it.
Sure, the Patriots lost for reasons other than Gostkowski's missed extra point. They couldn't slow the Broncos' pass rush, which hit Brady 20 times, the most any quarterback has been hit in any game this season. They allowed Manning to scramble for 12 yards on third-and-10 in the third quarter. They failed to convert two fourth downs inside the red zone late in the fourth quarter. Brady threw two interceptions (three if you count Bradley Roby's interception on the two-point conversion attempt).
It's also possible that even if Gostkowski hadn't missed the extra point that Belichick might have elected to go for two and the win anyway. Based on data from this season, it would have made sense. A two-point conversion attempt would have been a roughly 50/50 proposition (teams converted 48.4 percent in 2015), whereas the likelihood of converting the extra point (again, 94.1 percent success rate in 2015) and winning in overtime on the road (road teams were 8-13 in overtime in 2015) would have been much lower.
But as brilliant as Belichick is, even he is likely to kick the extra point in that scenario and take his chances in overtime. He has never attempted a go-ahead two-point conversion.
All of this is moot, of course, because of the missed kick. But imagine for a moment that the NFL never tinkered with the extra point. Imagine the courage it would take for a coach to keep his kicker on the sideline in the closing seconds of a 20-19 game with a Super Bowl appearance hanging in the balance.
That would have been entertaining.
At the very least, a game that no one (other than Broncos fans) wanted to see end wouldn't have. Manning. Brady. Possibly the final chapter in one of the sport's greatest rivalries. In overtime. It's a shame we didn't get to see it happen.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.