By Nick Shook
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1. For the second week in a row, the Broncos (3-6) allowed 40-plus points in a loss. This time, though, much of the blame doesn’t fall on the shoulders of their defense, but their special teams, which was downright abysmal and single-handedly determined the outcome of the game.
First, Denver’s Isaiah McKenzie muffed a punt after the game’s opening possession. Then, New England’s Dion Lewis returned a kick for a touchdown. And then, the Patriots blocked a Broncos punt. And as if things couldn’t possibly get worse, the Broncos were caught making a late substitution, turning a fourth-and-5 into a fresh set of downs for the Patriots (7-2). The two early mistakes were enough to sink a team — they accounted for two touchdowns, putting the Broncos in an early hole — but the additional miscues just piled onto what has quickly become an ugly season for a fading Broncos team. Worst of all, the issues (which accounted for 24 of New England’s points) reflect rather poorly upon a coaching staff, which isn’t the best for a first-year coach in Vance Joseph. If one asked a question of who’s taking the fall for this, all signs point to special teams coach Brock Olivo.
2. Emmanuel Sanders and Malcolm Butler went back and forth, and though New England won the war, Sanders won the battle. The slot receiver caught six passes for 137 yards, and made Butler work extremely hard to cover him. While Sanders was kept out of the end zone, he is clearly Denver’s best option and makes the Broncos‘ offense respectable. His presence on the field allowed Osweiler to work into some semblance of a rhythm and helped Denver’s offense develop a balance (C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker combined to rush for 112 yards on 25 carries) that it has lacked in the last month-plus. Unfortunately for the Broncos, this remains a team that lacks options outside of the aforementioned and Demaryius Thomas, who caught five passes for 44 yards and a touchdown. Even on Thomas’ touchdown, Butler was flagged for holding Sanders after the receiver gained an advantage while he was running toward the opposite side of the field. The route cleared space for Thomas in the middle, resulting in the touchdown.
3. Interesting note on Lewis, who is the embodiment of why New England is consistently near the top of the league. TO THE RESEARCH NOTES!!
Rex Burkhead made quick work off a hobbled Todd Davis, running crisp routes that freed him up for targets on a few occasions, including one for a touchdown. James White caught a touchdown pass. No matter where you focus on New England’s roster, the Patriots pull out another player who ends up making an impact.
4. Even with the lopsided defeat and the 0-2 mark, Brock Osweiler wasn’t too shabby. His stat line, which includes a completion percentage just a shade over 50, isn’t the best, but considering the depths to which his play plunged last season, this was a major step up. Having Sanders helped a lot. We’re not saying Osweiler is the future, but he did enough — with his 221 yards, one touchdown and one interception — to keep the job next week. On Sunday night, the problem surprisingly wasn’t the quarterback situation. That’s better than it has been for the last month.
5. The special teams didn’t do the Broncos‘ defense any favors, but as Joseph pointed out after the game, New England scored on seven straight possessions. Denver’s pass rush was nonexistent and the Patriots rarely were forced to convert on third down. The resulting issue was Denver sticking with its base defense on the earlier downs and getting bad matchups against players such as Burkhead and Lewis, and then refusing to move outside of such logic even after New England exploited it. Of the 67 total defensive snaps, Denver trotted out its base 3-4 on 48 of them, and used a Dime sub package on just 17 snaps. Stubborn coaching is hurting the group as much as its on-field mistakes.
6. We’ll save the best for last: Tom Brady is as good as ever and has a stable of options that seem to get deeper with each month. Just this week, the Patriots welcomed back Martellus Bennett after his bizarre divorce from the Green Bay Packers. In the first quarter, Bennett caught a pass and galloped down the sideline for a gain of 27. It’s funny how New England just finds ways to fit most pieces into its offense, and makes it look seamless. Of course, a lot of that reflects upon Brady, who was even congratulating teammates for good plays and advising others after his night ended with the game in hand in the fourth quarter.