DENVER --Unlike last week, the offense sprinted out of the gate. But just like last week, it sputtered and ultimately stalled, leaving the Broncos in dire straits in the AFC playoff race.
Denver fell to New England 16-3 on Sunday, falling to 8-6 with two games remaining against the Chiefs and Raiders, both of whom already have wins over the Broncos in their back pockets.
Despite a muffed Jordan Norwood punt that the Patriots recovered, leading to a game-opening field goal, the Broncos had momentum early until Logan Ryan intercepted Trevor Siemian on the first play of the second quarter, setting the Patriots up inside Denver territory after a 46-yard return. New England turned the takeaway into a drive to a LeGarrette Blount 1-yard plunge and led the rest of the way. "That's a 14-point swing in a lot of ways," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said.
The Broncos' promising first quarter -- in which they rolled up 146 yards and gained seven first downs while forging a 3-3 tie -- evaporated into a mid-game slump that saw them go six consecutive possessions without a first down.
The defense, meanwhile, held its ground and kept the Broncos in the game, holding the Patriots to their lowest per-play average of the season.
"Our defense played tremendous, held them to 16 [points]," Kubiak said.
But the offense has struggled, especially in the last three games, accounting for 13, 10 and three points in its December contests.
"The disappointing thing is that we had some ball movement [on offense], but we could have had a lot more ball movement if we'd made four or five more plays," Kubiak said.
A look back at how the three keys turned out:
Photos of game action during Denver's Week 15 battle against the Patriots. (photos by Gabriel Christus unless noted)
- AVOID THE SLOW START**
Unlike previous games, the Broncos didn't fall into a first-quarter deficit -- but they didn't capitalize enough on their dominance of the proceedings early. Denver ended the first quarter with a 146-39 advantage in total yardage, a 7-3 edge in first downs -- and only a tie game because of a failed red-zone opportunity and Norwood's muffed punt after the defense forced a Patriots three-and-out to open the game.
New England pounced on the Broncos' inability to capitalize, gradually pulling away after Ryan's interception.
2. DISRUPT THE TIMING OF NEW ENGLAND'S PASSING GAME
The Broncos didn't rack up sacks and hits on Tom Brady like they did last year, but they did exert enough pressure to elicit some errant throws from the typically accurate quarterback, who completed just 50 percent of his passes.
But with the Broncos' offense unable to move the football consistently, Brady's work was enough to get the job done for the Patriots to clinch the AFC East crown.
3. EXECUTION ON OFFENSE
Little went right for the Broncos in the final three quarters, with missed opportunities in the passing game, penalties, dropped passes and a stalled running game gradually stifling the offense.
"If we catch the ball in the second half, I think we move the ball some more," Kubiak said. "We've got about four or five plays that we [could have] made plays on."
But no play was more costly than Siemian's second-quarter interception, which cost the Broncos at least three points and led to the Patriots' first touchdown. Siemian looked to his left for Emmanuel Sanders, but misfired.
"Emmanuel ran a good route; I just left it behind him," Siemian said.
Ryan read Siemian's intent perfectly, jumping the route and grabbing the pass. He returned it 46 yards to the Denver 46-yard line, giving the Patriots prime field position from which they scored the game's only touchdown seven plays later.