DENVER — Even as the Broncos prepared for the Patriots, Quinton Carter knew that he wouldn’t see Brian Dawkins when he looked over his shoulder during Sunday’s game.
“We practiced like that all week,” Carter said. “He didn’t practice all week so we basically knew he wasn’t going.”
That left the safety chores to rookies Carter and Rahim Moore. Against the Bears in Week 14, Moore missed three tackles while filling in for Dawkins. Against the Patriots on Sunday, the Broncos’ defensive dam began bursting on the first series when Carter couldn’t bring down New England tight end Aaron Hernandez on the Patriots’ third play from scrimmage, turning a 13-yard pickup into a 46-yard ramble that set up the Patriots’ first touchdown two plays later.
It was a harbinger of woes to come for the Broncos’ defense, which held likely Pro Bowlers Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker mostly in check but was victimized by Hernandez’s roams through the secondary. When the Broncos adapted, New England responded by bringing Gronkowski back into the big-play fold, and he eluded Champ Bailey en route to a 38-yard gain that set up the game-sealing touchdown with 4:10 left in the game.
Little went right for the Broncos’ defense, which has proven vulnerable to the pass when absent one of its key players. Von Miller’s absence helped set up the Vikings for a 360-yard day two weeks ago; Dawkins’s injury proved costly.
That’s not to say the Broncos that played were using the injury as an excuse.
“Everybody in this locker room knows how important he is to this team,” said cornerback Champ Bailey. “You can’t expect to get the same results when you lose a guy like that but at the same time guys have to step up as professionals. You ca’nt play like that and expect to get wins.”
Added Carter: “Today was a perfect example of a team loss. I know personally I played horrible.”
But Dawkins’s absence because of a neck strain suffered seven days earlier against Chicago doesn’t explain everything that went awry for the Broncos defense, which surrendered 451 yards — its fifth 400-yard day of the season — and allowed 8.6 yards per pass play, the most they’ve permitted since Aaron Rodgers and the Packers gobbled up 9.7 yards per pass play in Week 4.
Tom Brady, like Rodgers, stands in the NFL’s elite tier of quarterbacks; they are the two best the Broncos had to face this year, and their statistics at Denver’s expense reflect that status.
But to Carter, the Patriots didn’t have to be that dominant, Brady be damned.
“Not to take any credit away from him, but you make mistakes like that against a team of that caliber, they’re going to take advantage of it.
“We had plays where guys were just left wide open, busted calls and what-not, not getting lined up right. That had nothing to do with them. That was us. Missing tackles. That’s us.
“I can’t really say they did this or that or confused us. We didn’t get lined up and we didn’t tackle.”
Added cornerback Andre’ Goodman: “As a defense, we weren’t communicating the right way. They took advantage of some of the things we were trying to do and we were kind of discombobulated.”