Poor special teams play doomed the Denver Broncos in their 41-16 loss to the New England Patriots Sunday night in Denver.
The Broncos' defense forced Tom Brady’s offense into a quick three-and-out on the first possession of the game and, for a split second, it seemed Denver may have found the light at the end of the tunnel, after losing four straight and five of their previous six.
But that light was quickly snuffed out when the Broncos virtually handed New England a touchdown.
Isaiah McKenzie muffed the punt from left-footed kicker Ryan Allen and New England tight end Jacob Hollister recovered it. The fumble was McKenzie’s fifth of the season. Three plays later, Brady threw an 11-yard bullet to Rex Burkhead who found his way across the goal line, giving New England a seven-point lead barely two and a half minutes into the game.
The special teams mistakes didn’t stop there:
Just four minutes later, New England running back Dion Lewis fielded a kickoff three yards deep in the middle of the end zone. Brandon McManus appeared to take some power off the kick in hopes of pinning the Patriots deep in their own territory. Instead, a massive seam appeared in the middle of the coverage that lead Lewis to the left sideline, where he snuck by Brandon McManus and Devontae Booker on his way to the end zone.
The Patriots lead extended to 14-3.
And there’s more:
With 11 minutes left in the first half, Riley Dixon lined up to punt at Denver’s 30-yard line. Rex Burkhead snuck through the center of the Broncos’ line and blocked the kick, giving Brady’s offense possession in Denver territory. Stephen Gostkowski kicked his second field goal of the night to give the Patriots a 20-6 lead with nine minutes left in the half.
And one last blunder:
Early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were caught with 12 men on the field when Ryan Allen lined up to punt. The penalty resulted in a first down for New England and the Patriots scored a touchdown to extend their lead to a 41-6.
The penalty was Denver’s fourth major special teams miscue of the game, after struggling in football's third phase all season.
While Denver’s special teams struggled again this week, their offense took a step forward.
On the Broncos' first offensive play of the game, Emmanuel Sanders beat Malcolm Butler, who covered Sanders all night, for a 31-yard gain down the left sideline. Brock Osweiler found Sanders four more times in the first half, giving the wide receiver 114 yards at halftime. He finished with 137.
Osweiler made a solid case to retain the starting quarterback job when Paxton Lynch is able to return to the field. He completed 18 of his 33 pass attempts for 221 yards with an interception and a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas.
More importantly, the offense found a rhythm under Osweiler's watch. At halftime, the Broncos had outgained the Patriots and averaged nearly 50 yards per drive. Their first three-and-out came with five minutes left in the game.
Despite their offensive success, the Broncos still faced a 22-point deficit at halftime due to their special teams trouble.
The Broncos’ defense struggled to slow down the Patriots. Tom Brady was content to piece together short gains and work his way down the field by picking apart Denver’s coverage.
Nine different receivers caught passes for the Patriots, including six running backs and tight ends. Non-wide receivers accounted for 177 of New England’s 303 total passing yards. Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks each totaled 74 receiving yards.
Second-year safety Justin Simmons was a bright spot for the Broncos’ defense. Simmons flew around the field and laid massive hit after massive hit. He led the team in tackles with 10 and also sacked Tom Brady on a safety blitz, the only sack of the game for either team.
Denver generated a decent pass rush early in the game, but as the clock wound down, the Broncos' pass rushers had more and more trouble getting into the backfield.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Rex Burkhead had a great night for the Patriots. He caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady and blocked a punt. Burkhead totaled three receptions and 27 yards through the air and 10 carries for 36 yards on the ground.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Isaiah McKenzie's muffed punt two minutes into the game set the tone for the Broncos. After a hot start by the defense, McKenzie's fumble gave New England a huge break. And the Patriots capitalized, as they seemingly always do. The fumble was the first of several special teams miscues that left Denver unable to keep up with the Patriots offense.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
"It's embarrassing. I'm tired of being embarrassed." - Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe
BY THE NUMBERS
-14 – Denver's turnover differential this season, the worst in the league
24 – New England points scored off of Denver's special teams miscues
0 – Sacks allowed by the Broncos in 33 New England passing attempts
The Broncos' playoff outlook is dire. At 3-6, there is virtually no shot for Denver to catch the Chiefs in the AFC West. Even a playoff berth is beginning to slip from the Broncos' grasp. With a 7-0 finish, Denver could all but assure themselves a playoff spot. A 6-1 finish would leave the Broncos hoping, and anything worse means a second-consecutive year with no postseason football.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-6), 2:25 p.m. MST, Sunday, November 19; CBS
The Bengals lost to the Titans this week on a 7-yard Marcus Mariota pass to DeMarco Murray with 30 seconds left in the game. The Bengals' record is far from impressive, but half of their losses have come by four points or fewer.