While the Patriots cannot get Sunday night's 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos back, the initial hope is that the team will get Rob Gronkowski back after the All-Pro tight end was carted off in Denver with a right knee injury.
After falling to 10-1 on the season on a snowy, cold night, the Patriots are clearly in a phase of transition late in the season. At a loss for the first time, the team has seen injuries pile up to a critical level. But bouncing back from an initial defeat is far more likely than the possibility of overcoming an extended absence of the team's playmaking pass catcher at the tight end position, especially with Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola already out of action.
On this night, though, the issues that led to the loss weren't just due to the pass catchers. New England struggled in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The offensive line, which has actually returned to health save for the Nate Solder injury that landed the left tackle on IR, could not block the Broncos front that squashed the Patriots attempts to run and put pressure on Tom Brady to the tune of 13 QB hits, the second straight week he was hit more than 10 times. New England converted just two of 13 third-down attempts and had a season-low 301 total yards.
New England's run defense, which had been arguably the team's most consistent area in the last two-months, couldn't corral the Broncos backs. Denver churned out 32 carries for a season-high 179 yards, including C.J. Anderson's 48-yard game-winning touchdown in overtime.
With the NFL's No. 1 and No. 2 scoring defenses facing off, the game played out as such for the first three-plus quarters. Points were tough to come by, New England led 14-7 at halftime and the teams then played a scoreless third quarter before the floodgates opened up in the final 17-plus minutes of regulation and overtime.
The teams combined for big plays and big mistakes. Rob Gronkowski got the day going with a couple key catches and a touchdown on the opening drive. Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week making his second career start, had a batted ball picked off by Chandler Jones to set up another New England score. Brandon Bolden hit a big catch-and-run score. Chris Harper muffed a punt return that gave the Broncos possession deep in New England territory, opening the door for the home team to erase a 21-7 deficit rather than allowing the visitor the try to ice the lead.
Demaryius Thomas had a horrific night with just one catch on 13 targets, but the one catch was a 36-yarder to kickstart a drive to a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter that also included a 39-yard Emmanuel Sanders' catch.
But after Denver took the lead, and while dealing with the emotion of watching Gronkowski get carted off, Brady led his troops on a drive to Stephen Gostkowski's 47-yard field goal to send the game to the extra frame that, in the end would not work out for the visitors.
It was a tough game in a tough spot for an injury-riddled Patriots team that continues to show its toughness. It could have easily been a big road win, that simply didn't play out that way. It had a postseason type feel, but the good news unlike playoff disappointment is this team can bounce back in the coming weeks and months.
"I'm really proud of the way our team fought tonight. We gave tremendous effort," Bill Belichick said. "I have all the respect in the world for this football team the way they competed. Disappointed in the result.
"They competed hard. They fought hard. All the way. All of them."
It wasn't an easy game. No loss is easy. Seeing more guys go down to injury is clearly tough.
"It just wasn't our night," Brady said.
But the Patriots fought hard to the end in a tough spot.
Belichick doesn't like the loss, but he certainly likes his team.
Before moving on to the Eagles next Sunday, and the hopes that Gronkowski can get by with a scare more than a serious injury, here's a look at some of the personnel highs and lows from New England's first loss of the season:
Rob Gronkowski – Some suspect media and fans had begun to question the All-Pro's production, but Gronkowksi answered that on the opening drive. He had pair of receptions on the quick scoring strike, including his 23-yard catch-and-run touchdown as he made both Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward miss tackles on the way to the score. Gronkowski finished with six catches for 88 yards before being carted off with the right knee injury. But the best news was the initial reports, from ESPN and others, that Gronkowski may avoided a serious injury.
Chandler Jones/Jabaal Sheard/Rob Ninkovich – New England's trio of defensive ends had a nice night in the Rocky Mountains. Ninkovich had a tackle for a loss on Denver's first drive and then finished with six tackles and a sack. Sheard and Jones then combined for maybe the key play of the night when the former hit Osweiler's hand as he threw, deflecting the ball into the air where it was caught in traffic by the latter to set up a short scoring drive. Jones also had a forced fumble, although the Broncos recovered.
Brandon Bolden – With Dion Lewis gone for the season, most assumed James White would get his shot to step up to a much bigger role as the passing back. But Sunday night in Denver it was Bolden given the chances to make plays and he took full advantage, most notably with his wheel route for a 63-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave the Patriots 21-7 lead. Bolden had four catches for 84 yards on four targets, as well as four rushes for 11 yards, though he did have a 9-yard long.
Stephen Gostkowski – A week after missing his first field goal of the season, Gostkowski proved his resiliency and accountability with the 47-yard game-tying field goal as time expired to keep New England's chances alive. He also put all four of his kickoffs in the end zone on the night, although only two resulted in touchbacks.
Run defense – New England hadn't allowed an opponent to top 100 yards rushing since Oct. 18 against the Colts. None of its last five opponents had topped 3.5 yards per carry. But the Broncos ran to impressive, consistent success most of the night. Denver piled up 32 carries for a season-high 179 yards and a 5.6-yard average on the ground. C.J. Anderson led the way with 15 carries for 113 yards (7.5 avg.) with a pair of touchdowns, including the 48-yard game winner in overtime. Ronnie Hillman shook off a very slow start to finish with 14 carries for 59 yards (4.2 avg.), including a 19-yard touchdown. The Patriots run defense just wasn't very good overall, aside from a few flashes by Alan Branch and others. The issue certainly wasn't helped when Dont'a Hightower left in the first half and did not return for a team already playing without Jamie Collins.
Josh Kline –The veteran guard was the worst of a line that wasn't impressive overall as a group. Kline was pushed around and beaten badly at times by Derek Wolfe, who finished with a sack and two tackles for a loss. Von Miller was also very productive with a sack and five QB hits, giving Sebastian Vollmer and the rest of the front issues with his athletic rushes. Tom Brady has now been sacked three times each in two of the last three weeks, and 25 times on the year after being sacked just 21 times all of 2014. The pass protection needs to get better because Brady being hit more than two dozen times the last two weeks is just not acceptable or a plan for sustainable success.
Chris Harper – The rookie practice squad call-up gave Denver it's biggest gain of the night when he muffed a punt that was then recovered at the Patriots 36 by Shaq Barrett. It was a tough break for the Cal product who had a nice summer and had been a solid force on the practice squad. Still, if he catches that punt the Patriots would be looking to ice a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter.
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