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Analysis: First loss might be the toughest

DENVER – From the start, the odds were not in Denver's favor.

Entering what would have been Brady-Manning XVII, the Broncos knew they would be without their injured QB, Peyton Manning, and their most formidable pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, who was dealing with a back injury.

Then there were these daunting realities.

New England, under Bill Belichick, was unbeaten in games when snow was falling (12-0), and when the Hooded One faced a young quarterback making his first or second NFL start, he'd only lost once in nine tries as Patriots head coach (Mark Sanchez pulled off the improbable in 2009).

However, New England had reason for trepidation as well. The Broncos have historically been a team that gives the Patriots problems, particularly in Denver, one of the hardest places in the NFL to come away with a win. The Broncos have pestered the Patriots since both teams' first-ever games as franchises in 1960. Denver paid a visit to Boston and beat the Patriots 13-10 in the AFL season opener. Since then, the Broncos held a 28-21 edge, including 3-1 in the playoffs, over New England.

That, and the Patriots came to Denver this Thanksgiving Weekend hobbling: virtually no healthy wide receivers, a patchwork offensive line that seemed to be on the mend, a secondary being held together by a thread, and New England's best defender, linebacker Jamie Collins, also unavailable for the fourth straight game due to an illness.

So, put it all together – the injuries on both sides, the expected snowfall in the Rockies,  Denver's Brock Osweiler taking over for Manning in just his second NFL start, the deafening Mile High crowd, New England's second attempt at a perfect season and playoff seeding at stake – and this 50th all-time meeting between the two franchises had all the appurtenances of a memorable matchup.

It wound up being memorable for several reasons, not all of them good. And for a while it didn't look like this was going to be much of an exciting game at all.

The first half seemed to play to the script, as New England's defense pressured Osweiler with a sack and another near-sack that wound up being a jump-ball interception. Denver's snowfall started to stick, and the Patriots found themselves up 14-0.

A knee injury to Dont'a Hightower late in the second quarter foreshadowed even worse things to come. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski appeared to suffer a severe knee injury in the fourth quarter, but his appearance in the locker room after the game might be a hopeful sign for his short- and long-term prognosis.

But back to the game…

New England's offense squandered a number of opportunities with favorable field position, unable to run the football effectively and Brady continually trying to find tight end Scott Chandler on go-routes that didn't connect. Yet the defense continued to harass Osweiler and the score stagnated at 14-7 until the first play of the fourth quarter, when Brady found running back Brandon Bolden streaking down the right sideline. Brady lofted a precision strike to Bolden, who'd gained step on his defender. Bolden eluded a tackle and kept his feet on the slippery Mile High grass to complete the 63-yard score.

The defense did its job again on the next series, and it looked like the Patriots were about to put the game away when rookie Chris Harper muffed a punt and the Broncos recovered in Patriots territory. Denver got back to within seven a few plays later. That seemed to galvanize the Broncos, who continued to chip away and eventually take the lead 24-21. New England tied it up to send it to overtime, but Osweiler proved up to the challenge and did something only one other QB – Mark Sanchez – has ever done so early in his career as an NFL starter. He beat a Bill Belichick Patriots team.

"Offensively, I just think we played into their hands," wide receiver Brandon LaFell explained. "We started throwing the ball a lot, let those guys rush [the quarterback], let Talib and the defense sit back in a zone. And we weren't making plays. For a whole quarter, we were three-and-out in the second half. Every time we didn't make a play, it was a penalty on us… it was just us getting in our own way."    

"I think we missed a couple of opportunities," said cornerback Malcolm Butler. "We didn't make the plays… we made plays, we just didn't make them when it counted."

 "You get that sick feeling in your stomach," remarked cornerback Logan Ryan, who had a tremendous game before surrendered a touchdown to Denver at the end of the fourth quarter. "I pride myself on finishing those plays and these games. We felt like we had the guys out there to win that game and we felt like we should have."

Maybe so, but losing Hightower and Gronkowski, on top of all the other significant players who've been felled this season, might eventually prove too much for the defending Super Bowl champs.

"I've been in the NFL long enough to know that it's part of the deal. Injuries don't always pick who they come upon," tight end Scott Chandler observed. "It happens to everyone and you have to be ready to move on as a team and have the next guy step up and make plays."

"I knew it was going to be a dog fight, 60 minutes," Butler added. "I knew it was going to come down to the end, which it did. We just came up short. A lot of lessons learned from this game."

The biggest lesson of all may be that, as good as the Patriots are, they might not be good enough to overcome so many losses to key players.

But then again, it was only one game, and the Patriots do still own the best record in the AFC. And the sightings of Hightower and Gronkowski afterward might be the only consolation the Patriots take back with them to New England.

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