DENVER – Three observations from the Broncos’ 41-23 loss to the New England Patriots at Sports Authority Field at Mile High here Sunday:
1. TOO MANY MISTAKES.
There is a point where you can make too many errors and face an opponent too difficult for a comeback to be possible. Sunday, the Broncos learned this.
Although they showed spunk in driving downfield to a Tim Tebow touchdown run that narrowed the gap to 11 points and gave the still-roaring home fans hope of a seventh consecutive win and seventh Tebow-led second-half comeback in his 12 career starts, an 18-point deficit that included 13 points directly attributable to Broncos fumbles and another point lost on a bad extra-point snap were snafus that proved too great to overcome.
The Broncos had self-inflicted wounds last week — five drops, two turnovers — but were able to stay in it thanks to a Bears offense that was rendered inert by injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. There was no such fortune with the Patriots.
“If we hold onto the ball in this game, who knows what happens,” said Tebow, who lost a fumble for a third consecutive game and now has four turnovers in the last three weeks — an understandable cause for concern. “That’s one of our biggest keys, if not the biggest. We have to improve with it.”
2. THE THIRD TARGET’S THE KILLER.
At Lambeau Field in Week 4, it was Jordy Nelson who caused the most damage for the Green Bay Packers, not the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, Donald Driver. Against the Detroit Lions in Week 8, it was Titus Young and Tony Scheffler who caught the touchdown passes that put the Broncos in a 24-3 hole at halftime, not Calvin Johnson, who didn’t score until it was 31-3.
Sunday, it was Aaron Hernandez and Chad Ochocinco who struck the first, most powerful blows. On New England’s third play from scrimmage, Hernandez turned a 13-yard pickup into a 46-yard gain by breaking a tackle attempt from rookie safety Quinton Carter and turning upfield until he was stopped at the Denver 33 yard-line. Two plays later, Ochocinco was wide open after miscommunication between the safeties and cornerback Andre’ Goodman allowed him to sneak behind every Broncos defender for an easy 33-yard touchdown that was his first in an otherwise maligned season with the Patriots.
“There were a lot of plays where, as a defense, we weren’t communicating the right way,” Goodman said. “They took advantage of some of the things we were trying to do and we were kind of discombobulated.”
The absence of Brian Dawkins didn’t help, and rookie safety Quinton Carter acknowledged the the absence of the 16-year veteran, who sat out with a neck strain, had an impact.
“Yeah. I busted several calls,” Carter said. “When you don’t play smart against a team like that, they take advantage of you.”
“It affects you. But this is a professional football league. You’ve got to find a way to do it. Young guys have got to step in,” added cornerback Champ Bailey. “We shouldn’t miss him that much. But unfortunately, we did.”
In the end, Gronkowski and Wes Welker, the Patriots’ two leading pass-catchers, combined for a pedestrian 94 yards on eight receptions — less than Hernandez had on his own in a nine-catch, 129-yard performance.
This makes Pittsburgh the worst possible first-round playoff matchup. Mike Wallace is already above 1,000 yards; Antonio Brown is just 75 away, and Heath Miller and Hines Ward are experienced, proven targets who have lost a step from previous years, but remain capable of dicing a defense.
Denver’s performance against the Packers, Lions and Patriots shows that one of those four targets would be likely to have a big day if the Broncos and Steelers meet in the wild-card round — and as we saw Sunday with Hernandez, the performance of a secondary target could be so overwhelming as to be fatal to the Broncos’ Super Bowl XLVI aspirations.
3. A REALISTIC ASSESSMENT.
A six-game winning streak that included two overtime wins and five triumphs by a touchdown or less is thrilling, but it can mask certain issues that come to the surface with a defeat. There is nothing wrong with that; losses can be teachable moments, and this appears to be one of them.
The lesson from Sunday? This team isn’t yet good enough to run with the thoroughbreds that they will have to face if Denver can hold off the Raiders and Chargers to win the AFC West in the next two weeks.
The Broncos have played three games against teams with a 9-5 record or better this year; they’ve lost them by an average of 45-19. Against everyone who is 8-6 or worse, the Broncos are 8-3 and haven’t lost by more than three points. Unfortunately for the Broncos, the playoff projection currently includes nine teams with records of 9-5 or better.
“We showed today that we’re not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push,” Bailey said. “We’ve got to get better and we only have two or three weeks to do it. If we don’t, then we’ll be sitting home in the playoffs.”
“Yeah, and that’s the disheartening thing right now, because we felt good about where we were in terms of winning six in a row and where we were in the division,” Goodman said.
“But when you have a monster like the New England team that came in today and you try to use that as a measuring stick, like if we get to the playoffs, these are the teams we’re going to face, how good can we be in the playoff race? Today I think we were just outmatched.”
Making the playoffs will be an accomplishment for the Broncos if they can complete the task in the next two weeks; going from 4-12 to the postseason will always be an accomplishment worth celebrating and savoring. But unless they shore up their pass defense and play mistake-free football, their stay appears destined to be brief.