Denver — Tom Brady wasn’t vintage Brady — until the end, anyway. And Stephen Gostkowski wasn’t reliable Gostkowski, putting New England in an early bind by missing an extra point.

The Patriots never could recover as their reign as NFL champions ended with a 20-18 loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Sunday in the AFC championship game.

“We just didn’t play well enough. You know, you get to the AFC championship and you get down, you’ve got to play well,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “You’ve got to play, really your best football of the year. Today, we just fell short. A couple of plays here and there where they made better plays really were the deciding factors of the game.”

The NFL wanted to spice things up by moving the extra point back this season. They certainly did at that. Gostkowski missed a rare extra point — he had made an NFL-record 523 consecutive PATs — and that put Brady and the offense in chase mode the rest of the way.

This was also far from Brady’s best performance. He was constantly hounded by Denver’s top-ranked defense, especially Von Miller as the linebacker finished with an interception and 2 ½ sacks. Brady was 27 of 56 for 310 yards and two interceptions.

But when it mattered most, Brady found his mojo.

Brady led the Patriots on a TD drive in the waning seconds, hitting Rob Gronkowski for a 4-yard score on fourth down. Pulling within two points at 20-18 and 12 seconds left, the Patriots went for the 2-point conversion.

Aqib Talib stepped in front of Brady’s pass and deflected it toward the sky. Bradley Roby made the pick.

The Broncos recovered the onside kick and, after a knee by Manning, the celebration began. Manning is now 3-1 against Brady when it has counted the most — with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.

Manning gave Brady a hearty handshake before No. 12 left the field. This city has been a house of horrors for Brady, who’s now 2-7 in the Mile High City.

This was Gostkowski’s first miss in nine years. His only other miss came in Week 17 of his rookie season in 2006 against Tennessee. He had made all 60 of his kicks in the playoffs.

Extra points

Giants quarterback Eli Manning, 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin and Saints tight end Benjamin Watson are the finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.

The winner will be announced during NFL Honors, a two-hour prime-time special airing nationally on CBS on Feb. 6, the night before the Super Bowl.

A $55,000 donation will be made in the winner’s name to a charity of his choice, and the two runners-up will receive an $11,000 donation. The other 29 team finalists received a $5,000 donation.

... Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who played this season after recovering from Hodgkin lymphoma, was named the Pro Football Writers of America's 2015 comeback player of the year.

Berry, 27, finished the season with 61 tackles, 10 pass deflections and two interceptions in 16 games, including 15 starts.

... Tony Romo expects to have surgery to strengthen his left collarbone this offseason.

Romo, who turns 36 in April, missed 12 Cowboys games this past season after fracturing his collarbone twice during the season.

... Former Philadelphia offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has joined the Vikings as an assistant, according to multiple reports..

Shurmur (Michigan State) was with the Eagles for the last three years. He was the head coach with Cleveland in 2011-12.

... Todd Monken is leaving Southern Mississippi to be the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach for the Buccaneers.

... Former NFL player Jabar Gaffney is facing drug charges after a traffic stop in central Florida.

The Florida Highway Patrol says Gaffney, 35, was stopped on Interstate 75 in Sumter County on Friday. He was arrested on charges of marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. He posted $7,000 bail and was released late Friday night.

Gaffney, a former University of Florida star receiver, played for numerous NFL teams from 2002 to 2012.