DENVER -- The throng was late arriving, and the noise not deafening. The frigidity turned even the rabid Broncos fans into an intelligent nest. They waited a bit longer to tailgate. Glancing at the snow told the story. There’s see-your-breath cold. And there’s see-your-life-pass-before-your-eyes cold.
The Broncos began their race for the postseason in conditions suited for the Iditarod. Fittingly, their cage match with the New England Patriots became a fist fight. No style. Just substance. The team making the fewest mistakes would be rewarded.
It wasn’t the Broncos.
They lost the turnover battle, and the game, falling to the New England Patriots 16-3 at the Otterpop that was Sports Authority Field. Now, there is no need for a qualifying statement. The Broncos must win out to reach the playoffs. And even then there are no guarantees they can snare the sixth seed.
"That's really not going to takes nowhere. Beefing with the offense is not going to take us nowhere," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "We are going to ride together and stick together. It's up to the leaders to keep the moral up."
The Broncos travel to Kansas City on Christmas Day, a potential final lump of coal in the stocking for the defending champions. Their schedule puts them in a much tougher place than the Miami Dolphins, who own the final spot. The Broncos no longer control their destiny. They made themselves vulnerable because of an offense that struggles to score. The Broncos entered the fourth quarter with three points. They began the final period last week with none. In the second half Sunday, they posted five first downs and failed to convert a third down.
Noticing a trend?
"That's what makes you sick," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said, "to play stout like we did today and hold them to 16 points and lose."
Safety T.J. Ward was even more blunt, "When you kill yourself with two early turnovers, and you're not putting points up, it's hard to win games. Point-blank. Period."
The defense kept the Broncos breathing, but couldn’t save them, not with costly turnovers from Trevor Siemian and Jordan Norwood, whose inclusion on the active roster brought a series of questions. On this day, Tom Brady no longer had to field uncomfortable inquiries about playing in Denver. He improved to 3-7 in the Mile High City, adding Siemian to Danny Kannell and Tim Tebow as quarterbacks he’s trumped here. Brady, who finished 16 for 32 for 188 yards, didn’t play great because he didn’t have to. New England relied on its small backs to crease the Broncos, playing keepaway as Dion Lewis posted a career-high in rushing yards as New England clinched a first-round bye.
"We have to do more," receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I had a catch I could have made that might have changed things."
Simply put, Denver’s offense couldn’t be trusted, couldn’t carry its weight. Trailing 10-3, the Broncos chose to let the clock run out in the first half with all of their timeouts in pocket rather.This is no longer an aberration. It has roots. The Broncos are 4-6 over their last 10 games.
"We definitely didn't want to give the ball back to them because (the Patriots had two timeouts)," explained Kubiak of the final first-half decision. "I don't know what the playoff scenarios are right now. I know we need to win. If we don't get to 10 wins, we are not going to the playoffs. We understand that."
Sunday symbolized the need for the defenders to remain unblemished. They were close. Then things got worse. Derek Wolfe exited with two stingers in his shoulder and neck area late in the second quarter and was ruled out. He has battled the issue throughout the season, but said he would be ready for Kansas City.
The Broncos defense showed fangs in the first quarter. The Patriots’ opening four drives netted 39 yards and zero completions for Brady. The Broncos stuffed the run, and showed aggression fitting their desperation. And yet the Broncos trailed 3-0 after Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 45-yard field goal because of Kubiak’s controversial decision to activate Norwood.
Scratched last week, Norwood resumed returning punts and muffed his first attempt, setting up the Patriots’ first score.
"I think it was a bad punt. I tried to fair catch it to save us a lot of field position," Norwood said, showing professionalism by facing the media after a poor performance. "It's a tough play that I've got to make."
The last time Norwood was on special teams, cornerback Aqib Talib shoved him off the field against Kansas City. Kalif Raymond replaced Norwood, providing a burst in back-to-back games. But Raymond was not involved in the passing game, leading to Kubiak’s choice to place Raymond on the inactive list.
"With what we were doing offensively, I wanted Jordan up. That was my decision," Kubiak said. "We were doing a lot of no-huddle."
With postseason hope fading, the Broncos offense initially revealed more wrinkles than a Shar-Pei. Denver came out in up-tempo. And ran not just for show. Justin Forsett totaled 19 yards on his first three carries, one more yard than the Broncos logged last week. He finished with 37. Trying to trick Yoda, um, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the Broncos used tight end Jeff Heuerman in the passing game. His 40 yards receiving and two catches represented career-highs. The Broncos tied the score at 3-all with 6:58 remaining in the opening period, a victory given New England’s ranking as the league’s most prolific first quarter team.
Consider it a tease.
The Broncos appeared ready to take the game by the nape of the neck when Siemian threw an interception. New England designed its defense to spoil any chance of Emmanuel Sanders enjoying a big day. When Siemian, who finished the first half with 147 yards passing, finally targeted him in the red zone, Logan Ryan knew it was coming. He jumped the route and rumbled upfield.
"That was big. It took points off the board," Belichick said. "This was a solid team win."
Lameted Siemian, who completed 25 of 40 passes for 282 yards, "I can't make that mistake. I just can't make that mistake for us."
Brady survived a fumble sack by defensive end Jared Crick and connected three times for 44 yards before LaGarrette Blount plowed in from 2 yards. It gave him 15 rushing touchdowns, a single-season Patriots record. The Patriots finished with 136 yards rushing on 39 attempts.
"They turned (the interception) into a touchdown," Kubiak said. "That's a 14-point swing in a lot of ways. That's the way they play. You better find a way to play well in the red zone."
The Broncos have allowed 62 points on giveaways, well shy of last season’s 100, but a reflection of the perfection required. When Thomas failed to haul in a fourth-down pass deep into the final quarter, the Broncos were frozen.
It has come to this. With a single misstep, the Broncos will miss the postseason for the first time since 2010. Their position remains hard to defend without an offensive awakening.
"A lot was going through my head after this game. It was such a tough loss," outside linebacker Von Miller said. "I could have done more. I could have done a lot more to help my team. But there's not going to be any friction (between the offense and defense). I am the partitioner. We have grown men in here. It's hard to accept knowing what this game meant to this organization and our fans. We have two games left and we have to get over it."
Denver’s defense played the second half without one of its top performers, Derek Wolfe. Wolfe has played through multiple injuries, and missed only one game with a fracture in his right elbow. However, he suffered a neck injury Sunday, which he has dealt with periodically this season. Wolfe left and did not return. Jared Crick received additional reps and rookie Adam Gotsis increased his snap count.
"I had two stingers in my shoulder and neck area so there wasn't enough time for it to calm down," Wolfe said. "I will be ready to go for Kansas City."
- The Broncos captains based on their performance against the Tennessee Titans: center Matt Paradis, defensive end Derek Wolfe and special teams gunner Kayvon Webster.
- Tight end Virgil Green walked off wobbly in the first quarter. Trainers diagnosed him with a concussion.
- Emmanuel Sanders (three catches, 48 yards) and Demaryius Thomas (seven catches, 91 yards) eclipsed 1,000 yards for the third-consecutive season. Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith (1998-2000) are the only other receiving tandem to accomplish this feat.
- With his first quarter field goal, Brandon McManus eclipsed 300 career points. It came in his 45th game, sixth-fastest to reach the mark in franchise history.
- Linebackers Todd Davis and Corey Nelson established career highs in tackles, each posting 13.
- Billy Turner made his Broncos debut, seeing time at right guard.
- Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown left with a stomach issue in the first half.