This isn’t the Patriots-Broncos get-togethers we became accustomed to during the four years Peyton Manning was in Denver, a stretch that included six head-to-head meetings and Lombardi Trophies for each organization. Manning retired after the 2015 season but Tom Brady remains (and at 40, there’s no indication that he won’t, in fact, play forever), and the Patriots are still one of the NFL’s best teams.
The same can’t be said for the Broncos who, despite a valiant effort from Brock Osweiler on Sunday night, fell to 3-6 because of an indifferent defense and a horrendous special teams. The 41-16 loss is the fifth straight for Denver, and it shares the AFC West cellar with the Los Angeles Chargers.
For some perspective on just how bad things are going, consider this: The Broncos finished 9-7 a season ago and missed the playoffs, but their defense allowed, on average, 18.6 points a game. They allowed 297 points all season and were the NFL‘s best defense on a per-play basis, according to Football Outsiders.
Through nine games this season the Broncos have allowed 239 points — 26.6 points a game, on average. The defense has slipped to sixth, though you wouldn’t know it watch them the last two weeks when they were on the business end a 51-23 loss to the Eagles and Sunday’s beatdown by Brady and company.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have the familiar look of the AFC’s best team. The Steelers share the same 7-2 record and hold the edge in the playoff race for the No. 1 seed in the conference, but no one thinks Pittsburgh is better than New England.
Against the Broncos, Brady was clinical, even by his ridiculously high standards. He finished with 25 of 34 for 266 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers. He spent much of the evening targeting his tight ends and running backs (more on that below) while Denver’s defense was helpless to do anything about it.
The Broncos’ promising start was short-lived
Good news: On the first series of the game, the Broncos forced Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to go three-and-out. Bad news: Broncos return man Isaiah McKenzie muffed the ensuing punt and the Patriots recovered (of course they did).
Then, two plays later, Rex Burkhead sauntered into the end zone to give New England a 7-0 lead with 12:36 to in the first quarter. The game was effectively over at this point.
If you’re looking for a silver lining — and you’ll really have to squint to see it — this is the best we can do: The Broncos have been terrible all season when it comes to giving up points off turnovers. So this shouldn’t be unexpected.
What was surprising, however, is that the muffed punt was the warm-up act for what was to come.
Osweiler, who replaced Trevor Siemian as the starter last week, had a good first series against New England on Sunday night and led Denver to a field goal. On the kickoff, however, this happened — and pay special attention to the Broncos’ Devontae Booker choosing to shove Dion Lewis towards the end zone instead of, you know, out of bounds:
There’s more! Early in the second quarter, as Osweiler continued to outperform expectations, the Broncos’ special teams continued to play down to its 28th ranking in DVOA:
Yep, Broncos pulled off the special-teams trifecta in the game’s first 17 minutes: The muffed punt, the kick return for a touchdown and the blocked punt. Five plays later, the Patriots kicked a field goal to take a 20-6 lead.
The return of @MartysaurusRex
On the Patriots’ third series, Brady found good buddy Martellus Bennett for 27 yards. It was Bennett’s first reception thrown by Brady since Feb. 5, 2017 when New England beat Atlanta in Super Bowl LI.
If you’re wondering where Bennett has been the last nine months, the answer, up till last week, was Green Bay. Then things got weird. The Packers parted ways with Bennett with a failure to disclose an injury designation, and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the tight end has been playing with a torn rotator cuff and torn labrum.
Bennett’s return to New England is the exclamation point on a strange two weeks in which the tight end said during Green Bay’s Week 8 bye that he would probably retire at the end of the season. Bennett practiced just once after the bye due to a shoulder injury the Packers apparently didn’t know about. He didn’t play in Week 9 against the Lions and before he was waived, wasn’t expected to suit up against the Bears on Sunday.
But Bennett passed his physical with the Patriots and, obviously, played on Sunday night.
By the end of the night, New England’s tight ends and running backs accounted for 16 of the team’s 27 receptions. And this isn’t a case of Bill Belichick being smarter than everyone else but of simple scouting and execution:
Here’s how bad it got: The Patriots wisely stayed away from shutdown cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. and targeted linebackers and safeties forced to cover the aforementioned tight ends and running backs. But late in the second quarter, Dwayne Allen not only caught his first pass of the season, he scored a touchdown.
In coverage on the play? One of the NFL’s best pass rushers, Von Miller.
Allen is the 68th different receiver to catch a touchdown pass from Brady.
Osweiler wasn’t half bad
Osweiler had one of his best games in recent memory, and that has to be encouraging for a Broncos offense that has stumbled through much of the first two months of the season. Emmanuel Sanders was the biggest beneficiary against the Patriots — he finished with six receptions for 137 yards — but things were going so well for the embattled quarterback that even the equivalent of blocked arm punts were finding his receivers for first downs:
Of course, it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. First of all, Denver lost. Plus, Osweiler’s stat line (18 of 33, 221 yards, one touchdown, one interception) won’t suddenly make people forget about John Elway — or, hell, Jake Plummer and/or Jay Cutler.
And we’re pretty sure this poor sap left Sports Authority Field with a less-than-glowing review of Osweiler’s performance because his lasting memory will be getting doinked in the gourd midway through the second quarter:
More depressing numbers for the Broncos
In the Broncos’ last five games, they have been outscored 55-6 in the first quarter.
In those games, the Broncos have held the lead for four minutes total — and that came last week when the led the Eagles 3-0. When it was over? Philly whipped Denver, 51-23. It was such a beatdown, in fact, that the Eagles tweeted that they ran out of celebratory fireworks.
The Patriots led 27-9 at the break and cruised to a 25-point win.
Salute to Service
Every player around the league stood for the national anthem on Sunday, a day after Veterans’ Day. And in Denver, Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe honored his brother-in-law, a member of the Navy, by having him run out on the field with him. Awesome moment.
The Patriots (7-2, atop the AFC East and the No. 2 seed in the AFC) are headed to Mexico City to face the Raiders (4-5) next Sunday in the famed Azteca Stadium. But first, it’s to Colorado Springs for the week to train at the Air Force Academy. Why?
The Broncos (3-6), meanwhile, are tied for last place in the division with the Chargers and will host the Bengals (3-6) next Sunday.