The Patriots 10-game winning streak came to a crashing halt in overtime in Denver where New England failed to hold a pair of 14-point leads in dropping a 30-24 decision to the Broncos.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots first loss of the season:
CURIOUS CALLS – Once again the Patriots were unable to run the ball effectively at all but despite the lack of production it appeared as if LeGarrette Blount should have gotten his number called a few times down the stretch. Leading 21-17 with under three minutes to go, the Patriots opened with a 1-yard Blount run and followed that with a 14-yard Tom Brady pass to Rob Gronkowski for a first down. At that point the game clock was down to 2:48 and the Broncos had just one timeout remaining. It seemed like a perfect time for Blount to get at least one more carry but Brady went back to the air. It wound up being a disastrous situation when the pass not only fell incomplete but Gronkowski was carted off with a right knee injury and didn't return. (Various reports indicated the injury may have looked more serious than it was and he was scheduled for an MRI). Obviously the decision to throw wasn't the reason for the injury but running the clock would have been a more prudent course of action. Ultimately the Broncos got the ball back with plenty of time to move the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown.
GRONK BACK IN FORM –Unfortunately the injury overshadowed a strong performance by Gronkowski. After seeing his production dip slightly over the past month the All-Pro tight end was back to his dominant form early in the game. Over the past month Gronkowski had just two touchdowns and in his most recent game he caught just two passes for 37 yards in the win over Buffalo. But he caught four passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in the first half in Denver, once again leading the passing game for Brady. He added a 22-yard catch on the opening drive of the second half and came through on a night when the Patriots were starving for viable options for Brady. He finished with six catches for 88 yards.
CHANDLER STRUGGLES – Despite grabbing a second-quarter touchdown pass Scott Chandler's struggles continued. Brady looked his way twice on the Patriots second possession and each time he failed to haul in catchable passes. On the next series it appeared as if Asante Cleveland, who was activated during the week off the practice squad with Michael Williams sitting out with a knee injury, took his spot as the second tight end. He did manage to beat an attempted Von Miller bump off the line and caught a 9-yard touchdown when he was uncovered in the end zone to give New England a 14-0 lead. Chandler was up and down throughout the remainder of the game, catching five passes for 58 yards but he was targeted 11 times and failed to come up with many catchable balls.
HARPER RETURN WOES –Wideout Chris Harper was called upon to serve as the punt returner with both Julian Edelman (foot) and Danny Amendola (knee) out of the lineup. The rookie did a nice job early of handling Britton Colquitt's punts under adverse conditions, averaging 8.5 yards on his two first-half attempts. He did a nice job of moving up to field the ball and got upfield effectively on each return. Patrick Chung returned one for 4 yards in the second half as he and Harper were both sent back as returners in the snow. But then disaster struck in the fourth quarter with the Patriots leading 21-7 and seemingly in control. He failed to handle Colquitt's punt and Shaq Barrett recovered at the Patriots 36. Ronnie Hillman soon ran 19 yards for a touchdown and the game was back in doubt.
ZONING IN –Entering the game there was considerable time spent trying to predict how the Patriots secondary would handle talented Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. It turned out the Patriots decided to do a little bit of everything with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan matching up at times while appearing to use more zone coverages as well. Ryan did a nice job when he was lined up with Thomas, limiting him to one catch for 36 yards despite a game-high 13 targets. Unfortunately the one catch was huge as it jumpstarted the go-ahead touchdown drive late in regulation. He also was beaten by Andre Caldwell for the touchdown that put Denver ahead. Sanders was much better, finishing with six catches for 113 yards, many of which came on key plays that resulted in first downs. Devin McCourty had a strong game in support and tackled well on most occasions, but ultimately the Broncos were able to make enough plays to win.
OUT OF LINE –The Patriots offensive line continues to struggle, generating very little in the running game and having a hard time keeping Brady on his feet. Brady was sacked three times and the Patriots finished with only 39 yards on 16 carries on the ground. New England opened with a front of Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, next to Shaq Mason while Bryan Stork was back as the starting center. Josh Kline and Marcus Cannon rounded out the starting unit. Tre' Jackson stepped in at right guard occasionally while Mason was used as a fullback, and Cameron Fleming got reps as an extra tight end. Kline really struggled with Derek Wolfe, who beat him for a sack and was a constant force in the backfield all night. The pass protection especially needs to improve as Brady will need more time to find some targets that he's not as familiar with.
BROWN COMING ON –Rookie defensive tackle Malcom Brown is enjoying a strong season stopping the run and he was strong in that department again Sunday night. He did a nice job collapsing the inside and had a couple of stuffed runs in the first half and also had a sack. Brown finished with four tackles and sack and did a nice job next to Alan Branch preventing the Broncos from picking up big yards on the inside.
BOLDEN BRINGS IT –Brandon Bolden has been a valuable member of the team for several years now, whether it be as a fill in running the ball, catching it or on special teams. Against Denver he made a huge impact as a receiver and came up with one of the biggest plays of the night. Bolden caught four passes for 84 yards and added a brilliant 63-yard touchdown down the right sideline. The thing that is most impressive about Bolden is that he can go weeks or more without being actively involved in the offense but always seems to be ready to contribute when called upon, and his deep ball beating Danny Travathan Sunday night was the kind of play that probably should have led to a victory.
EXTRA POINTS –The NFL announced the Patriots Week 14 game at Houston was flexed to Sunday Night Football. … Gronkowski was called for pass interference twice, his fifth and sixth such infractions of the season. … Brady finished with three touchdown passes, the third of which was the 420th of his career and tied him with Dan Marino for third all-time. … Gronkowski's touchdown was the 63rd of his career, which moved him past Shannon Sharpe for the third-most by a tight end in NFL history. … Jonathan Freeny registered the first sack of his career. … Asante Cleveland's catch was the first of his career. … Chandler Jones picked up the first interception of his career when he caught the deflection of Brock Osweiler's pass after Jabaal Sheard's hit. … Keshawn Martin returned to the lineup after missing five games with a hamstring injury. He finished with one catch for 8 yards. … Stephen Gostkowski's fantastic season continued when he connected from 47 yards out to tie the game with no time left. He now has made 24 of 25 field goals and remained a perfect 39 of 39 on PATs.