By Jason Keidel

Not even Tom Brady — who has reached the Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks and is still climbing the rungs of immortality — can win without decent players around him. The mushrooming Patriots triage now includes Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and, perhaps, Rob Gronkowski.

Even still, the Patriots were up 21-7 last night, then lost the lead and then a thriller in overtime to the Denver Broncos, 30-24. It proved the Pats are human, and the Broncos aren’t quite buried, despite their recent turnstile at quarterback.

Brady, now well-oiled by the social media machine, posted a picture on Facebook of himself riding a bronco, adding to an already electric rivalry. But Brady and the Pats couldn’t quite hang onto the saddle long enough to leave Denver with a flawless 11-0 mark.

As smooth and skilled as anyone in bad weather, Brady led his team to a last-second field goal in regulation, only to watch C.J. Anderson rumble his way toward a Broncos victory. Thus ends the Patriots’ bid at an undefeated season, and all comparisons to 2007.

You don’t have to be a Patriots apologist to wince at the officiating last night. But that wasn’t why Denver won or New England lost. Indeed, with so many themes, you could literally throw a dart at your flatscreen and find one.

With the rules twisted so heavily toward the passing game, the old axiom that defense wins championships seems as archaic as the single wing. But the Broncos are 9-2, with or without a decaying Peyton Manning, with or without unproven Brock Osweiler at quarterback.

Turns out that a bruising defense and jackhammer running game still count for something. And watching Anderson gallop toward the goal line last night was the perfect example, italicizing the very parity that’s lathers across the NFL shield every year.

Fitting that last night had an old-school feel to go with the old-school look, snow slanting across your TV, players dancing on the icy grass to keep their footing. It looked like football should, and ended like it shouldn’t, which is what makes the NFL so darn gripping.

Osweiler is now 2-0 since Manning was benched for a poor performance that morphed into a foot injury. What happens if Denver keeps winning? Do you lean on the old icon who’s been there but doesn’t have the same skills, or do you gamble on the young guy who seems to have just enough talent and temerity to win big games?

Can Brady keep winning while flanked by sandlot players? Can the Pats rely on film study and duct tape to keep this train rolling? Are the collective brain cells between Brady and Belichick enough to carry them to a Super Bowl one more time? Even by the Spartan standards of pro football, the injury bug is feasting on New England.

Last night also revived the debate over the ever-shrinking “tackling zone” — created by the concussion saga that has plagued the league. Gronkowski has already blown out his knee after a low hit from an unseen tackler. And again last night, he was writhing on the ground after another crouching defender lunged into his legs.

Ask most players, and they’d take their chances with a high hit going across the middle over a helmet slamming into their kneecaps. It spawns a larger chat over a person’s right to imperil themselves versus a governing body making that decision for them.

Do we take players out to protect them from head trauma? Do we instead add to the endless slate of surgeries on mangled limbs? Is it better to walk straight with a hazy brain or have a pristine skull and prosthetics everywhere else?

That problem won’t ever be solved. But the Broncos, who were supposedly dead after consecutive losses, are now one game from the AFC’s top seed. This adds one more variable to the playoff algorithm, which was quite mottled before they upset the Patriots.

It may not be fun for all the participants, but it’s great theater for the rest of us, gridiron leftovers on top of our turkey.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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