Broncos are 4-6 since 4-0 start; playoff berth looking unlikely Denver defense “tremendous” but offense is still struggling
The call Justin Forsett had been hoping for came the evening of Sunday, Dec. 4 as he dined with his two sons and wife. His most recent NFL job, in Detroit, had come and gone with little to report, but on the other end of the line was a chance to start anew, with a coach and an offense that helped him reach his peak only two years ago.
Gary Kubiak and the Broncos claimed the running back off waivers hoping his 31-year-old legs and knowledge of their zone-blocking system would provide the spark their offense sorely lacked.
For a few minutes early in Sunday’s game against New England, it appeared as if their hope had turned to reality. But just as quickly those sparks faded and promise gave way to frustration. In frigid temperatures, and in spite of a spectacular performance by their defense, the Broncos lost to the AFC-leading Patriots 16-3 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Denver dropped to 8-6 and with games left at Kansas City and at home against Oakland will need to win out, and get help, to make the playoffs as a wild card. New England (12-2) clinched the AFC East and secured a first-round bye.
“Our defense played tremendous,” Kubiak said. “The disappointing thing is we had some ball movement, but could have had a lot more ball movement if we could have made four or five more plays.”
After a difficult Denver debut at Tennessee a week ago that included a fumble on his first carry, Forsett nevertheless got the start against the Patriots and ran for 19 yards on his first two carries. His quick cuts created rushing lanes, and a brief resurgence of the run game set the stage for a passing game that had, in recent outings, struggled to show its face until the second half.
But the hope was misleading. The early offensive momentum resulted in only
An interception of a Trevor Siemian pass by cornerback Logan Ryan at the Patriots’ 8-yard line turned the tide early in the second quarter. All the Broncos’ seasonlong struggles on offense returned soon after. New England turned the turnover into a touchdown drive, making it 10-3, and its defense dominated from that point.
“Yeah, I can’t make that mistake. It just hurts us,” Siemian said, adding that the offense’s performance was “frustrating, no doubt. Especially earlier on when we were moving the ball really well and have no points to show for it. A lot of that’s on me. Missed a couple opportunities to get us points early on, and that comes back to haunt you.”
The Broncos’ defense, while depleted, kept them in the game and ensured Tom Brady’s latest trip to Denver would be trying but not insurmountable. Brady finished 16-of-32 passing for only 188 yards and a 68.2 passer rating.
Siemian, meanwhile, was 25-of40 for 282 yards, but a big chunk of those yards came late when New England backed off protecting its 13-point lead.
The ground game that had such promise to start mustered only 58 yards. And the Broncos went without a first down on their first five second-half possessions — a span during which they gained only 19 yards.
“The pieces are there,” Forsett said. “Now we just have to get it together and get on the same page. But the talent is there.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams in this league. We have what we need. We just need to execute. … I think we were able to run the ball on them well in the first half, but second half, we didn’t come out and execute and extend drives to get more plays going. That was the issue.”
The Patriots got on the scoreboard first, a 45-yard field goal that was a gift from Denver. Punt returner Jordan Norwood muffed yet another opportunity, putting New England in prime scoring position for a 3-0 lead. Norwood fumbled two punts against Kansas City three weeks ago, key plays in an overtime loss to the Chiefs in Denver.
The 39-year old Brady, who has seemingly defied the human aging process since returning from a four-game suspension this season, went 0-for-6 to start and New England had but 39 yards in the first quarter.
But Brady’s drought didn’t last long.
On the first play of the second quarter Ryan got his pick and Brady capitalized, leading the Patriots on a 46-yard scoring drive, during which he completed all four of his pass attempts to set up LeGarrette Blount’s 15th rushing touchdown of the season, a franchise record.
“I don’t care who you’re playing for or what the circumstances are,” said Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, “you have two early turnovers like that, it’ll definitely put you in a hole.”
Despite the performance of Denver’s defense and the encouraging start of the offense, the Broncos ended the first half with a 10-3 deficit.
The second half only got worse as a second sack of Siemian was followed by the loss of defensive end Derek Wolfe to a neck injury. And, as the Patriots ate up the clock, they extended their one-score lead to 13 points, on two more field goals by Stephen Gostkowski.
The fourth quarter had typically been the offense’s time to shine. But not this time. Not behind a line that failed to open holes. Not with a run game that stalled. Not after going 0-for-2 in the red zone and 2-for-12 on third downs. Not after multiple dropped passes. Not after a yet another fumble in the waning seconds by Norwood.
The continued imbalance between the offense and defense has the potential to tear apart the Denver locker room, but Talib said that won’t happen.
“That’s not really going to take us anywhere though, just being frustrated,” Talib said. “Beefing with the offense, that ain’t going to get us nowhere, so we’re going to stick together.”
Denver’s offense failed. Its spark faded. Now the Broncos just hope their postseason hopes aren’t completely dashed.
“I know we need to win. Losing this game hurts,” Kubiak said. “I don’t know what all the scenarios are, but I know if we can’t find a way to win 10 games we’re not going to have an opportunity. We all understand that. We’ve understood that from the get-go.”
New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty breaks up a fourth-down pass intended for Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas during the fourth quarter Sunday. The fierce hit essentially ended the Broncos’ comeback hopes.
Broncos linebackers Todd Davis (51) and Shaquil Barrett hit New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount during the fourth quarter Sunday. The Broncos held Blount to 31 yards rushing on 17 carries, with a long run of 5 yards. Joe Amon, The Denver Post
Devin McCourty, on the ground, Rob Ninkovich (50) and Logan Ryan of the New England Patriots stop Broncos running back Justin Forsett during the second quarter. John Leyba, The Denver Post