DENVER — As the two-minute warning arrived at a frosty Empower Field at Mile High, the Broncos seemed to be yet another story of resilience.
Denver, which battled back from a 1-5 start to sit in the thick of the AFC wild-card race with three games to play, had again staved off certain defeat. Trailing by 16 points entering the fourth quarter, the Broncos mounted 83-yard and 78-yard touchdown drives and successfully executed both two-point conversion attempts.
The Broncos, in the waning hours of Christmas Eve, then forced a three-and-out to give themselves a chance at an unlikely win.
In the moments after a Marvin Mims Jr. fumble on a kickoff return that the Patriots returned for a touchdown, the Broncos held just a 1.6 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN Analytics. The fumble-return touchdown followed a Mike Gesicki touchdown that pushed New England's lead to 16-7 and gave the Patriots 14 points in a span of six seconds. The Broncos' playoff chances, at that moment, were on the verge of being extinguished.
"I felt like, personally, I blew it," Mims said. "… It cost us at the end. [I've] got to be better, I know that. At the end of the day — I mean, things happen — but I just know I got to be better."
And yet, following the three-and-out, the Broncos held a 70.4 percent chance to win and took over at their own 39-yard line.
It was as close as they would get to one of their largest fourth-quarter comebacks in team history.
"We thought that we were going to be able to win that game," quarterback Russell Wilson said. "I thought everybody battled. This meant a lot to us all. It didn't go our way."
Denver proceeded to go three-and-out, and the Patriots — after rushing attempts on their first two plays of the drive — used a 27-yard DeVante Parker catch on third down to help set up a game-winning 56-yard field goal.
In a moment, the Broncos' two late touchdown drives — which featured a 47-yard diving catch by Mims, a 3-yard jump-ball catch by Lucas Krull, clutch completions to Jerry Jeudy and a 21-yard touchdown throw to Brandon Johnson — were rendered moot. A pair of two-point conversions, which came via a screen pass to Johnson and a quick throw to Javonte Williams, were also negated.
With the 56-yard kick, the Patriots' Chad Ryland atoned for a missed 47-yard field goal and extra point and sent the Broncos' playoff chances to just four percent.
"Obviously a disappointing finish, a really frustrating game," Head Coach Sean Payton said. "We had a lot of opportunities, I felt, especially in the first half. Offensively, we struggled. Tip our hats to New England. We fought back in it. I said to the team [that] there were six or seven different situations in that game that any one of those play out a little differently [would have changed the outcome], but unfortunately, they didn't. Our margin for error right now is not what it needs to be, and we end up on the losing end of the game."
Denver's loss, of course, did not hinge solely on the final sequence.
On the first play from scrimmage, D.J. Jones flattened Partiots quarterback Bailey Zappe and recovered the fumble. Denver took over at the 6-yard line, but the team would come away without points as Javonte Williams was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 2-yard line.
After forcing a punt, Denver again missed a chance to put up points after starting a drive in New England territory. On third-and-6 from the New England 42-yard line, Russell Wilson threw a deep pass down the left sideline to Courtland Sutton, who could not hang on to the ball. Sutton exited the game in the first half, and Payton confirmed after the game that he was in the league's concussion protocol.
"It is tough any time you lose a good player like that," Payton said. "He is in the [concussion] protocol. I think it happened early in the game and there were a couple of adjustments that we made and then you go play. … You adjust on the fly."
Denver would get on the board on its final first-quarter drive, as Mims' longest punt return of the season — a 52-yarder that allowed Denver to start at New England's 25-yard line — helped set up a Javonte Williams touchdown run.
The Broncos, though, would make too many mistakes on their ensuing offensive possessions. Williams fumbled on Denver's ensuing series after the Patriots cut the lead to 7-3, and the Patriots were awarded possession despite guard Ben Powers initially appearing to gain control of the loose ball. Denver would also have a chance at a two-minute drive to end the first half, but Wil Lutz's 57-yard attempt at the horn drifted just left of the goal post.
Denver then started the second half with four punts and Mims' fumble as the Patriots scored 20 third-quarter points.
"Overall, it was not good enough offensively," Payton said. "That needs to be better."
And still, the Broncos nearly put together a Christmas miracle.
A come-from-behind win — however unlikely it seemed entering the fourth quarter — would have kept the Broncos in the thick of the playoff race. Instead, the Broncos were left with only disappointment about the missed opportunity.
"You want to play in games like this, but you give credit to New England," safety Justin Simmons said. "We didn't play nearly well enough in order for us to win this game. I am proud of the team and the way that we fought to get to this point, but extremely disappointed in how we executed and, I guess, lack of execution in this game.
"This one stings."