DENVER --A return to Sports Authority Field at Mile High couldn't get the Broncos back on track.
New England sprinted to a two-score lead in the first seven minutes of the game, and for the fourth time in the five games of their current losing streak, the Broncos never led, ultimately falling 41-16 to the Patriots on Sunday night.
"The bottom line is, we stink right now," defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "We're not a good football team. We're not playing good."
Why did the Broncos lose?
Because special-teams breakdowns put the Broncos into an early hole**
The opening moment of the game had promise for the Broncos; the defense stuffed the Patriots and forced them into a three-and-out. The home crowd of 75,284 was roaring.
And then Isaiah McKenzie muffed the subsequent punt. New England's Jacob Hollister recovered the football at the Denver 24-yard line, and the Patriots scored on a Tom Brady-to-Rex Burkhead touchdown two plays later.
"It puts us in a big hole and I put that blame all on me," McKenzie said. "If I would've caught that first punt or did anything with it besides turn it over, we probably would've been in the game."
Barely four minutes later, it got worse. After the Broncos had marched 58 yards in eight plays to a 39-yard Brandon McManus field goal, New England's Dion Lewis fielded McManus' kickoff three yards deep in the end zone, darted up the left sideline and dashed for a 103-yard touchdown that put the Broncos behind, 14-3.
The woes continued in the second quarter when the protection for Riley Dixon caved in on the left side, allowing Burkhead to block Dixon's punt. New England recovered the football at the Denver 30-yard line, and scored five plays later on a 28-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, extending their lead to 20-6.
Finally, in the fourth quarter with the Broncos trying to mount a comeback, a defensive stop was wiped off the board when Denver's punt team was called for having 12 men on the field. The penalty resuscitated New England's drive, leading to Brady's third touchdown pass seven plays later -- a 6-yard toss to James White that concluded the scoring.
Twenty-four of the Patriots' 41 points came on special teams or in the wake of short fields set up by special-teams miscues. Those points ended up being almost all of the difference between the teams.
"We've just got to do better on special teams," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "They outplayed us in that area, and when you play against Tom Brady, you can't spot him anything. You've got to be sound in all three phases. He's going to take advantage of our mistakes."
Because the offense couldn't maximize its scoring chances**
For a second consecutive game, the Broncos scored nine first-half points -- all on Brandon McManus field goals. Unlike last week, McManus didn't have to drill a pair of long-range attempts from beyond 50 yards; this time, the Broncos drove inside the New England 25 three times in the first half, but came up with field goals each time.
"We've got to finish drives," running back C.J. Anderson said.
"I'm going to regret that long run," he continued, referring to a 21-yard run on the Broncos' second series that moved them to the New England 15, but no closer after the next three plays went for no gain, forcing them to settle for a 33-yard McManus field goal. "I didn't break the last three tackles to get in the end zone. I've got to step out of that.
"We played fine on [offense], we played a lot better, but we didn't play at an elite level. Playing better is one thing, but we're not playing at an elite level."
Because the Patriots seized momentum back in the third quarter**
There was a moment midway through the third quarter when the Broncos had a chance to regain traction and get back into the contest. The offense had just mounted its most impressive drive of the night, converting three third downs on a 13-play, 75-yard march to an 8-yard Osweiler-to-Thomas scoring pass.
Denver's defense opened the ensuing series by stuffing Patriots running back Dion Lewis for a 1-yard loss. But on the next two plays, Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks for 26 and 25 yards, respectively, quickly pushing New England into scoring range. They scored four plays later, having never faced a third down on the series that allowed them to push their lead back to three scores, at 34-16.
The Broncos' subsequent drive petered out at the Denver 48-yard line, and they trailed by three or more scores from that point forward.
The Patriots' scoring march to open the second half was the fifth of six consecutive drives for their offense that ended in points. New England punted on its opening series and never punted again.
"Defensively, they scored on seven straight possessions," Joseph said. "Obviously, the [special] teams were a glaring issue, but [it was] all three phases again."