DENVER -- Last January as Vance Joseph pieced together his coaching staff, he needed energy. Brock Olivo arrived from Kansas City as a human Red Bull, trumping multiple candidates to land the special teams job. He has spent the first two months of the season pointing a finger in the mirror, unable to foster an effective culture or performance from his group that suggests his position could be in danger.
Sunday proved cringe worthy even when framed by low expectations, a special teams fiasco in a season where the nadir remains a moving target.
On a night that demanded perfection to execute a U-turn, the special teams imploded in spectacular fashion, leaving the Broncos zooming down the interstate to nowhere, falling 41-16 Sunday night for their fifth consecutive loss.
"It's 's like we're a whole new (bleeping) team. It's embarrassing," defensive Derek Wolfe said. "It's sad. It's sad that we went from being a championship-caliber team to a team that stinks and nobody respects."
Early in the fourth quarter, much of the sellout crowd, which began booing at halftime, exited into a parking lot of anger and frustration.
The Patriots produced a special teams takeaway, returned a kick for a score and blocked a punt in a game for the first time since 1979. When the Broncos thought about making a history, this isn't what they had in mind. It speaks how badly the special teams sabotaged the Broncos when Denver had outgained New England by 90 yards halfway through the third quarter and trailed by 11 points.
Afterwardm Joseph was asked if Olivo would be fired.
"ll say this: When you lose like this, it’s on all of us,” Joseph said. “It’s a staff that we chose and that we feel great about. I wouldn’t say that; I would say it’s on all of us. We have to coach better and play better."
He is correct. The problem is Joseph has repeated this phrase for five weeks and counting.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Joseph and the players preached the importance of a clean performance. Brock Osweiler, who performed well, insisted the Patriots were the "perfect opponent" to steer the season back on the rails. Actually the Browns are. But I digress.
Joseph did not commit to starting Osweiler this Sunday against Cincinnati. He played well enough to keep the job, until the team determines the season is lost and plays Paxton Lynch.
"The biggest thing we can do is come in tomorrow," said Osweiler, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 221 yards, "and be honest with ourselves as we watch the tape."
Desperation reeking from each corner at Dove Valley, everything mattered. No detail was too small. Nose tackle Domata Peko admitted guys called each other out. Accountability ruled. Then Isaiah McKenzie, whose presence on the field has drawn questions since August, fumbled a punt. It was his fifth, and second lost, a staggering amount for a rookie who has failed to reward the staff's blind faith in him.
A year ago, Aqib Talib shoved veteran returner Jordan Norwood off the field after a fumble against New England. This was worse, helping drop the Broncos to 3-6 overall.
"It's still a good football team, but the record and the way we're playing right now is not a clear indicator of that," said linebacker Von Miller, who insisted the players had not lost confidence in Joseph or the coaches. "What we put out there was a bad football team. What we put out there last week was a bad football team."
McKenzie's latest mistake came after the Broncos produced their 31st three-and-out drive. Tom Brady showed mortality on the first drive. Then McKenzie let Brady guzzle electrolytes with an unspeakable gaffe, fueling his best performance in Denver and improving his record to 4-7 in Mile High Stadium. Why McKenzie receives opportunities is a sobering question and focuses scrutiny on Olivo's continued employment. Multiple players groused off-camera at how poorly the special teams played, wondering aloud about McKenzie's spot.
"It put us in a big hole and I put that blame all on me," McKenzie said. "If I would have caught the first punt or done anything but turn it over, we probably would have been in the game."
Two plays after the rookie's fumble, Brady connected with Rex Burkhead on a 14-yard touchdown as tight end Rob Gronkowski drew double coverage.
The Patriots won their fifth straight, outscoring opponents 128-67 during this stretch.
"I think everybody played well. Tom played well, receivers played well, the backs played well, the line, the defense, the special teams, they all played well," said coach Bill Belichick, who tied former Dallas Cowboys legend Tom Landry for third all time in wins. "That makes everybody's job a little easier."
The Broncos' offense, showing new creative formations, raced down the field behind Emmanuel Sanders (114 yards receiving in first half). Denver, averaging 12.75 points over the last five games, settled for a 39-yard field goal, shaving the deficit to 7-3.
Hope flickered in the sellout crowd. Buzz meet kill. The Broncos allowed running back Dion Lewis to race 103 yards on the ensuing kickoff. Lewis zoomed past Shaquil Barret, juked McManus, and outran Devontae Booker for the touchdown. The Broncos have been outscored 55-9 in the first quarter and 106-24 in the first half during their five-game losing skid. Denver ranked near the bottom of nearly every important special teams category before the game. It required an archaeological dig to find a new bottom. The shovels appeared in the second quarter.
After the offense shaved the deficit to 17-6, Burkhead blocked Riley Dixon's punt. A Patriots' starter on special teams victimized backups. Imagine that. Beating the Patriots requires flawless execution. It created an odd feeling -- the Broncos were playing fairly well and trailed 20-9 with 2:36 remaining in the first half after McManus' third field goal.
While special teams shoved the Broncos' toward a loss, the defense offered little resistance, with defensive coordinator Joe Woods experiencing another difficult game. Brady played to his MVP status, clinical in his dissection of linebackers and safeties guarding tight ends and running backs. Brady, 40, completed 25 of 34 passes for 266 yards and three scores. So much for his issues in Denver.
"I really do love the game, and I love practicing and playing," said Brady, whose Patriots will practice in Colorado Springs this week as they prep for their upcoming game in Mexico City. "I love being with my teammates and working hard. So it's fun for me. I plan on doing this for a long time."
The Broncos had no answer, their defense's swagger gone. The Broncos have allowed 92 points in back-to-back games. During their Super Bowl season in 2015, they yielded 296 points. It is a defining hallmark of a bad team that when one area gets fixed, another leak springs. The offense showed bursts, and improvement.
And yet there was nothing memorable or special about Sunday night, unless it marks the beginning of job casualties.
"It's tough, but you have got to have pride in yourself, pride in your name, and still compete," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "I am a fighter. I am not going to quit, and I don't expect anybody else on this team to quit."