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Analysis: Don't count them out yet

The Patriots fell to 3-3 and looked vulnerable on Sunday in Denver, but they refuse to quit, and the hardest part of the schedule is behind them.

With a 3-3 record following Sunday's 28-20 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Patriots have entered uncharted waters. The team has not lost three games in a season since 2002, which is the only season in the last four in which they did not win the Super Bowl.

The days of going 14-2 in the regular season are over, gone like so many of the players who made that success possible: Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light and Roman Phifer.

No one can dispute that the New England dynasty is in decline, but Sunday's performance in Denver, when the Patriots nearly rallied from a 25-point deficit despite losing three more starting players, showed that the heart of this champion team still beats strongly.

With three other AFC teams (the Colts, Bengals and Broncos) having five wins, the Patriots may be out of the running for the best regular season record, but they are far from dead and might yet be a serious threat at playoff time.

Consider what the Patriots have already endured in 2005.

-- They have survived a brutal stretch that included four road games in five weeks. Four of their opponents in that stretch made the playoffs last year, and the fifth (Carolina) was their opponent in the Super Bowl in February 2004.

-- They have endured the losses of Harrison, their leading tackler and defensive captain; Light, the starting left tackle in each of their three Super Bowl seasons; and Faulk, their best receiver out of the backfield.

-- Their running game has generated an average of 82 yards a game this year after averaging 133 yards in 2004. They have taken the ball away from opponents only three times in six games after averaging more than two takeaways per game in 2004.

-- Despite all, they are still standing. They are tied for the lead in the AFC East. Only two of their 10 remaining opponents have winning records. Only three of their next eight games are on the road. They have a bye next week. And Tedy Bruschi might be back soon.

-- They have taken the ball away from opponents only three times in six games after averaging more than two takeaways per game in 2004.

Sunday's loss was surely a disappointment for the defending champions, but it comes as no surprise. The Broncos entered the game on a four-game winning streak, and the Patriots were decimated by two more injuries that they could not afford: Running back Corey Dillon missed the game with a foot injury, leaving the team with only third-stringer Patrick Pass and emergency free agent signee Amos Zereoue; and safety Guss Scott, the replacement for Harrison, sat out with a knee injury, making rookie James Sanders the starter.

These losses came on top of the continuing absence of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who missed his second straight game with a knee injury.

The game got off to a good start for the Patriots, who took a 3-0 lead on an Adam Vinatieri field goal. But the Broncos took complete control in the second quarter with three huge offensive plays that led to three touchdowns and a 21-3 lead.

The Patriots' hole only got deeper when Sanders, the replacement for the replacement safety, went down with an injury, and Logan Mankins, the rookie left guard, got ejected for throwing a cheap shot after the whistle at the end of the first half.

Things couldn't get much worse, it seemed, but they did, when the Broncos added another touchdown to make the score 28-3 with 10:39 remaining in the third quarter. The Patriots appeared thoroughly beaten on the drive, surrendering 33 yards on the first two plays as well as a 21-yard reception by Rod Smith.

"We just came up short early and fell too far behind and just couldn't make it all up," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick.

The catastrophic stretch of 28 unanswered points began in the first minute of the second quarter and saw the Broncos run off four touchdown drives in a span of five possessions. The drives covered a combined 342 yards and took only 24 plays. Denver achieved that outlandish average of 14 yards per play by completing three plays of 55 yards or more.

The first big gainer was a 72-yard pass completion from Jake Plummer to Smith on a crossing pattern. The second was 55-yard Plummer pass to Ashley Lelie. The third was a run up the middle by Tatum Bell that went for 68 yards.

"We gave up big plays, running and passing, and that obviously hurt us," Belichick said.

Patriots' cornerback Duane Starks had coverage on both of the long passing plays and was targeted throughout the game, as he had been by the Chargers and the Falcons in the two previous games. One has to wonder what Patriots Vice President of Player Personnel (and two-time NFL Executive of the Year) Scott Pioli was thinking when he traded a third-round draft pick for Starks (and a fifth-round pick) last March. Starks has 25 interceptions in seven NFL seasons and may yet come around, but at the moment he is a liability.

While Denver was running up 28 unanswered points, New England's offense was going nowhere. On four possessions, the Patriots gained a total of 93 yards and punted three times. They reached the Denver 35-yard line on the fourth possession, but Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal try.

The Patriots couldn't move the ball on the ground (32 yards in the first half), and the Broncos took advantage by blitzing often and getting heavy pressure on QB Tom Brady nearly every time he dropped back.

The rout was on, and a lesser team might have rolled over and lost by 40 points. But the Patriots are made of tougher stuff than most, and they turned the tables, scoring on three successive drives and closing the score to 28-20.

One important change was the decision to make better use of reserve running back Pass, who sparked the drives with a 32-yard reception, a 17-yard run and an eight-yard touchdown run. On the day, Pass totaled 64 yards on 10 carries and 89 yards on six catches.

"Patrick had some good plays," said Belichick. "He's been doing that for us all year, and he did it again today."

Zereoue, who had been out of the NFL since last December, had been getting most of the carries early in the game and had managed only two yards on his first six tries.

Brady also got hot in the second half. On the two touchdown drives, he completed nine of 12 passes for 111 yards, including an eight-yard scoring pass to David Givens. The Patriots' offensive line depth paid dividends in the second half as Brady was well protected despite playing behind two replacements on the left side (Nick Kaczur at tackle and Russ Hochstein at guard).

While the Patriots' offense was ringing up 17 unanswered points, the defense was finally getting the Broncos under wraps, allowing only 24 yards combined on three Denver possessions.

The Patriots might have come all the way back and tied the game if they had managed an interception or a forced fumble, but they came up empty on takeaways for the third straight game.

Help might be on the way, however, in the form of Bruschi, the star linebacker who has six interceptions and six forced fumbles in the last two seasons. The team issued a statement during the game stating that he has received medical clearance to resume play after missing the first six games recuperating from a mild stroke he suffered after playing in the Pro Bowl last winter.

For the game, the Patriots totaled 388 yards of offense, including 299 passing yards by Brady, who completed 24 of 46 passes. Deion Branch had seven catches for 87 yards, and Givens had seven for 58 yards.

Mike Vrabel, who replaced Monty Beisel at inside linebacker, led the defense with 13 tackles. Outside linebacker Willie McGinest played with a cast on his injured left hand and logged five tackles.

The Patriots' red zone troubles continued, as the Broncos scored touchdowns on all four of their trips inside the New England 20-yard line.

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