Bron­cos are 4-6 since 4-0 start; play­off berth look­ing un­likely Den­ver de­fense “tremen­dous” but of­fense is still strug­gling

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nicki Jhab­vala

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

three points.

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.”

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

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

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