The Broncos were leading 24-0 at halftime, but a 21-point third quarter by the Patriots got them back into the game. This was only Denver’s second loss in 23 all-time games when leading by 24 or more points going into halftime. Their previous loss came back in 1988 against the Los Angeles Raiders.
Peyton Manning struggled to throw in the cold conditions at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. He finished the day with only 150 yards passing, a season-low total. His 52.8 percent completion rate and 4.2 yards per attempt were also the lowest he’s had this year.
On Monday, Denver interim head coach Jack Del Rio said the weather did not change their game plan against the Patriots:
No, I think our approach was to do the things that we could to move the football—to best utilize our guys against what they were trying to do. Move it and score points. We were effective for good portions of the ball game. I think if you protect that football and just don’t turn it over, I think it’s a different outcome.
The team was effective throughout the night because of a dominant ground game.
Knowshon Moreno was the heart and soul of the Broncos offense against the Patriots. He smashed his way to a career-high 37 carries for 224 yards (also a career high).
Moreno had 208 rushing yards in between the tackles against the Patriots. Without Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, the Patriots defense is soft in the middle of the line. This total yardage between the tackles was the most in any NFL game since 2007 (Jamal Lewis, 219).
The offensive line was blasting open holes for Moreno up the gut. He gained 145 yards before contact against the Patriots. Only DeMarco Murray has more yards before contact in a game this year (149 against the Rams in Week 3).
Late in the game Moreno injured his ankle and had to leave the game. After C.J. Anderson fumbled we saw Moreno come back into the game, and he clearly wasn’t at full strength.
Del Rio gave good news about Moreno on Monday: "Knowshon has a bruised ankle and is day-to-day. I would say there’s a good chance by the end of the week you’ll see him on the practice field."
Because Manning didn’t do much on Sunday night, the receivers failed to make much of an impact.
Demaryius Thomas did score a late fourth-quarter touchdown to tie the game. He is now the first player in Broncos history to have at least 10 touchdown catches in consecutive seasons.
The team played without tight end Julius Thomas, but veteran Jacob Tamme stepped up and led the team in receiving with five catches for 47 yards with one touchdown.
Wes Welker returned to New England and had a rough game. As a receiver he failed to make much of an impact, and he dropped a few key passes from Manning.
The Broncos were going to get the ball back with about three minutes remaining in overtime when Welker made a critical mistake. He was back to return the punt but decided to waive off his teammates at the last second to get away from the ball. Tony Carter was too close to the ball, and it hit him on the leg then was recovered by the Patriots at the Broncos’ 13-yard line.
Del Rio was asked Monday about that play:
Certainly, [WR] Wes [Welker] would say, ‘Hey I’ve got to be more emphatic getting the guy out of there’ and then [CB] Tony [Carter] I’m sure would say, ‘Hey I’ve got to be more aware there.’ That’s something that [Special Teams Coordinator] Jeff [Rodgers] does a great job—our special teams coaches do a great job—of drilling situations and teaching and talked awareness and things to be alert for and that was one of those situations. You’re trying to block and the ball takes a bounce. It’s just one of those fluke deals that can occur. We work hard and practice that to ensure it doesn’t and it just got us—it bit us there. As coaches we have to say, ‘Hey, we have to do an even better job of teaching the situational awareness there and helping our guys be better in that particular situation.’ I think both players involved tried to take some blame and I think as a coach that’s looking over it all I take some share or that blame. I think Jeff and his staff—we all kind of feel like we can do this a little bit better. I think it’s a learning opportunity for us.
Defensively the Broncos broke down in the second half, specifically in the third quarter.
In the second half (and overtime) Tom Brady was a perfect 10-of-10 with three touchdown passes—two to Julian Edelman and one to Rob Gronkowski—on targets within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. In the first half, Gronkowski and Edelman had only four targets combined.
The Broncos will now try to stay on top of the AFC West and get back on the winning track as they travel to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13.
They will have played the 9-0 Chiefs, the 7-3 Patriots and then the 9-2 Chiefs in three straight weeks. The combined .833 win percentage is the toughest three-game stretch any team in the NFL has played this late in the season since the 1998 Miami Dolphins.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Broncos are still on top of the AFC West thanks to the San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs lost to the Chargers in Week 12 and are tied with the Broncos with a 9-2 record. The Broncos have the tiebreaker right now since they beat the Chiefs in Week 11.
Kansas City has now lost two games in a row after starting the season 9-0. The Chiefs are the seventh team in the Super Bowl era to lose two straight after starting 9-0 or better. Three of the previous six teams went on to win the Super Bowl.
In the game against the Chargers they lost both Tamba Hali (ankle) and Justin Houston (elbow) to injury. These injuries allowed the Chargers to take command of the game. The Chiefs may have Hali available for the game; Hunter’s elbow appears to be the more severe of the two injuries.
The Chargers offense got back on track against the Chiefs after those two defenders went down. Philip Rivers now is tied for the most games in a single season with 390 or more passing yards in a single season.
The Raiders lost to the Tennessee Titans in Week 12 and fell to the bottom of the division with a 4-7 record.
Undrafted rookie quarterback Matt McGloin still played well against Tennessee, and he will be the starter on Thanksgiving as the Raiders take on the Dallas Cowboys.
The Raiders may also get Darren McFadden (hamstring) back for this game. He’s likely to be eased back into the lineup if he’s available on Thursday. Rashad Jennings has been doing a fine job as the starter while McFadden has been out.
The Broncos have a few key injuries to keep an eye on. Moreno injured his ankle against the Patriots and was seen on crutches with a walking boot after the game. It sounds like the team expects him to practice later in the week.
Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured his shoulder trying to gather in an interception on the final play of the first half.
Del Rio commented on the play at his press conference on Monday, saying, "I’d like to see him catch it. He would like to see himself catch it. He had a chance to catch the ball and he just banged his shoulder a little bit. I think he’s going to be fine."
Rodgers-Cromartie is considered day-to-day with this shoulder injury. He may be able to practice later in the week.
Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was in and out of the Patriots game due to a hip injury. The team currently has no update to provide on the injury. "He is a little sore but we’ll learn more when we get the test results back." Del Rio said on Monday.
Vickerson played well against the Patriots, and missing him in the middle of the defensive line would hurt the defense. The veteran is a huge run-stuffer who can push the middle of the pocket to get pressure on an opposing quarterback.
The Broncos may get two starters back for the Chiefs game.
Tight end Julius Thomas missed the game against the Patriots due to a knee injury. He traveled with the team, but the Broncos felt it was best if he didn’t play against New England.
Thomas should be able to play this week. Getting him back on the field will boost the offense as he can create mismatches with ease.
Del Rio talked about the return of Thomas and cornerback Champ Bailey:
I would anticipate we will get Julius back. Those guys (Bailey and Thomas) were both questionable last week. At the end of the day, we felt it was in their best interest and our best interest that we wait one more week with both of them so they had to miss yesterday but they should be full-go this week.
Bailey should be able to return from the problematic foot injury that has plagued him most of this season. "He’s a great football player, certainly a veteran guy with a ton of experience and know how. It will be great to have him back," Del Rio said.
It would greatly benefit the defense if both Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie can play against the Chiefs on Sunday.
What Must Improve
The team has to stop turning the ball over. If they don’t clean this problem, turnovers will crush their Super Bowl dreams.
Jack Del Rio called turnovers the team’s "kryptonite" on Monday:
Kryptonite. It’s been kryptonite so far. I watched Man of Steel last night on the ride home. That’s an issue and we’ve got to correct it. We’ve got to be better there. That’s the one area that regardless of how good you are, that’s the kind of thing that can really cripple you and we’ve got to protect the football better. We are preaching it. We are coaching it. I believe in the guys we have. I believe we can be better at it—we just have to be. It’s just one of those things that as we do that better it will look a whole lot better. [LB] Von Miller, I just want to throw that out there—we talk about, 'Boy [would] love to see him become more impactful.' Well, he was impactful last night. He was very impactful last night. He worked hard during the week in terms of the way he prepared himself and I thought that we saw that in his performance so that’s a positive sign. There is some positive to pull out of that ball game last night and so yes, you’re right, we need to protect the football better. Clearly that’s something we’re going to continue to drive home, but there are also some good things going on.
The Broncos have done a better job of protecting Manning in recent weeks, but he still fumbled twice (both recovered) against the Patriots.
Over the last two weeks Manning has been sacked only twice and hit four times. They can live with some fumbles brought on by an opposing pass rush. They cannot accept fumbles from their running backs.
Montee Ball fumbled against the Patriots, his third lost fumble this year. This coming on the heels of losing the exchange with Manning in Week 11 against the Chiefs (that fumble was credited to Manning).
He was not known as a fumbler in college. Ball fumbled five times, losing two, in 1,001 touches during his four-year career at Wisconsin. He has now been credited with three lost fumbles in 82 touches with the Broncos.
The Broncos may turn to other backs as Ball cannot be trusted. Ball coughed up a fumble earlier in the season and saw only 14 snaps in the ensuing three games.
Del Rio did not come out and commit to Ball going forward. On Monday Del Rio said, "Whoever is up is going to play. We’ll have our guys ready to play. Anybody that is up and active, we expect them to be able to play a role for us."
The team has serious ball control issues, but Ball isn’t the only running back with fumbling problems.
Fellow rookie (undrafted) C.J. Anderson came into the game and got a few carries after Ball fumbled against the Patriots. He carried the ball three times for 16 yards before he losing the handle as well. Anderson did recover his own fumble, but that miscue was his last play for the evening.
Del Rio talked about the team’s plan to get its backs to improve their ball security:
We dedicate more than you might think. We drill it, rip at it. We have different drills that our guys are being put through all the time. So we are definitely not only stressing it and talking it, but we are coaching it and drilling it. Look, I’m an optimistic guy. I believe that we’re giving it the proper attention. I believe that is something that we can fix ourselves. We control that. And so I believe, as we do that, that we take away the one thing that has kind of been our kryptonite and hopefully it gets a lot better.
In addition to Ball and Anderson, the team also has second-year running back Ronnie Hillman on the roster. He has been inactive ever since losing a fumble (his only one this year) near the goal line against the Indiapolis Colts in Week 7.
With the fumbling problems from Ball and Anderson the team may turn back to Hillman to serve as the primary backup behind Moreno.
On defense, the team has to get better at covering tight ends. They struggle each week covering that position in space, regardless of the caliber of the opponent.
Rob Gronkowski was able to torch the Broncos defense on Sunday night. He finished the game with seven catches for 90 yards and one touchdown. In the previous week Kansas City’s tight ends (Anthony Fasano and Sean McGrath) combined for six catches for 77 yards and one touchdown.
Better play from their linebackers is necessary to improve coverage in the middle of the field. Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan are both athletic linebackers who can fly to the ball. However, both are known to get out of position at times when asked to cover tight ends.
The Broncos may very well play the Patriots again in the playoffs. The team has to figure out a way to at least slow down a guy like Gronkowski. And, if they were able to get to the Super Bowl and play a team like the New Orleans Saints, then they’d have to contend with superstar Jimmy Graham.
This is a constant problem for the Broncos, and a problem that opponents game plan to exploit each week.
The Broncos have to quickly get past the Patriots loss as the Chiefs will have revenge on their mind. And after getting beat by the Chargers in Week 12, the Chiefs are backed into a corner.
The Broncos should get both Bailey and Julius Thomas back from injury. That will greatly help both sides of the ball.
If the Broncos want to win they need to do a better job of protecting the ball. Fumbles are unacceptable, as they can quickly change the momentum of a game.
This game could very well determine who wins the AFC West in 2013. This contest also has huge playoff implications in the conference. A win could mean the difference between getting a first-round bye or playing on Wild Card weekend as the fifth seed.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.