FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Entering Sunday's matchup at Gillette Stadium, the Broncos offense knew it would be key to stay on the field as long as possible -- if only to keep Patriots quarterback Tom Brady off of it.
Instead, it was Brady and the fast-paced New England offense that kept quarterback Peyton Manning off the field, stringing together four drives of 12 plays or more en route to a 31-21 victory.
"You have to translate things from the meeting room and practice field to the game," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Coaches can't go out there and play for us. We have to make sure we put ourselves in position to make plays, get off the field on third down or whatever it may be. We worked on everything they did to us. There weren't any surprises. They just hit us in the mouth and we didn't hit back hard enough."
New England held the ball nearly 12 minutes longer than the Broncos, picking up 35 first downs and converting 11-of-17 third downs in the victory.
"One of the things that was going to be real important in this game, because they are so good on third down, was third down," Head Coach John Fox said. "We didn't get that done. I think they were 70 percent. That's how you possess the ball and keep it away from a team that has a good offense as well. Defensively, that was an area that we fell short."
Still, for the third time in their three losses, the Broncos nearly executed a late-game comeback, scoring 14 consecutive points to pull within 10 of the Patriots.
Thanks to a fumble by running back Stevan Ridley -- forced by linebacker Von Miller and recovered by safety Mike Adams -- Denver was set up for another scoring drive.
But with the ball at the 14-yard line, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich forced a fumble by running back Willis McGahee that New England recovered at its own 11, putting an end to Denver's comeback hopes.
"That fumble, he just made a good play," McGahee said. "I had it high and tight and he made a good play, but still, I have to be better than that. I think that changed the game for us, so I'll take all the (blame) for that."
The Patriots offense ran the remaining 3:42 off the clock to seal the victory.
"We have guys that won't quit," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who had a game-high 180 yards on nine receptions. "If you have a team that won't quit, and just keep playing and (have) everybody fighting, I feel like that can build a great team. It can probably help out in the long run, it just has to start clicking. And early, take care of the ball and put points on the board."
Denver looked to be on its way to points on the opening drive of the game, as quarterback Peyton Manning hit Thomas for a 35-yard gain into the New England red zone, but Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore forced and recovered a fumble, returning it 14 yards to his own 17-yard line.
"He made a good play, but I put it on myself," Thomas said. "I just feel like I have to put the ball away. It was a good ball, I had time to put it away and I just didn't."
Missing out on those points allowed New England to strike first on its second drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Brady to wide receiver Wes Welker.
The 12-play drive was a sign of things to come -- New England continued to convert its third downs to stay on the field, often until the Patriots found the end zone.
"We had a chance that first possession - any time you can start a game on the road with a touchdown or points and settle the crowd down - instead, we kind of flipped it and gave them some momentum," Manning said. "They got the lead and never lost it."
Denver strung together a long drive of its own on the ensuing possession, fueled by a 30-yard reception by Thomas and a pass interference call in the end zone. The 10-play, 80-yard drive was capped by a 1-yard touchdown throw from Manning to tight end Joel Dreessen that tied the game at seven points apiece.
But New England had an answer of its own, this time piecing together a 14-play drive, with running back Shane Vereen providing the exclamation point, a 1-yard dive into the end zone that gave the Patriots a 14-7 lead.
The next three scoring drives belonged to New England. First came a 16-play field-goal drive to close the first half. The Patriots followed that with another 16-play drive to open the third quarter, this time finding paydirt via a 1-yard Brady run.
On the opening play of Denver's next drive, Manning was sacked and fumbled the football, which the Patriots recovered.
After two penalties on the Denver defense, Ridley reached the end zone on an 8-yard scamper to give New England a 31-7 lead.
Manning found Decker on the ensuing 10-play drive for a 2-yard touchdown strike to trim the lead, and a forced fumble on a sack by Elvis Dumervil gave Denver a chance to make a game of it in the fourth quarter.
Manning hit wide receiver Brandon Stokley for a 5-yard score with 6:43 left in the game to pull within 10 -- 31-21 -- but those would be the final points of the game for either team.
"At the end of the day, it wasn't about looks and preparation and all that type of stuff," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "It was about them playing better than us for 60 minutes today. We did some good things in spurts, but overall they played better."
Denver now sits at 2-3, with an AFC West showdown looming next Monday night in San Diego against the Chargers.
Thinking about the caliber of teams Denver lost to -- undefeated Atlanta, undefeated Houston and AFC East-leading New England -- doesn't do the squad any good. The club knows the importance of grabbing a win in the division to get back to .500 entering the bye week.
"I know they've been great teams that we've lost to, which still doesn't make it any easier," Manning said. "It's disappointing, but I think the key is learning from them and building on it. I believe we will."