The Patriots dream of a perfect season came to a close on Sunday night in Denver, but the end of that pursuit was only a minor disappointment for the franchise in the aftermath of defeat.
Instead the team’s focus shifted to apprehension about the status of Rob Gronkowski after the superstar suffered a right knee injury in the closing moments of regulation in New England’s 30-24 overtime defeat to the Denver Broncos.
The tight end was carted off the field with 2:49 remaining in the fourth quarter following a clean low hit by Broncos safety Darian Stewart that connected with Gronkowski’s knee. The 26-year-old appeared to be in tremendous pain on the field, but was seen walking under his own power following the loss. Multiple reports, including one from ESPN’s Adam Schefter, indicate that the prognosis on Gronkowski’s knee may be better than it looked on the field with additional tests looming in the coming days.
Gronkowski’s scary injury cast a dark shadow over a disappointing setback for New England (10-1), which blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead against 25-year-old Brock Osweiler in his first career home start.
While Osweiler was a steady presence in midst of the Broncos’ 17-point fourth quarter, Denver (9-2) got its biggest spark from C.J. Anderson. The running back ran for 115 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win, including a game-winning 48-yard touchdown run on the Broncos first possession in overtime.
Tom Brady threw for 280 yards and three touchdowns in the setback, but only connected on 23 of his 42 passing attempts with a shorthanded receiving corps. The 38-year-old did manage to lead a game-tying drive in the final 1:09 of regulation, going 51 yards down the field to setup a Stephen Gostkowski 48-yard field goal as time expired. The Patriots’ offense stalled in overtime however, giving Denver the opening it needed to complete its comeback and help close the gap in the standings for top team in the AFC.
Three Things We Learned:
1. Depth issues expose Patriots
New England entered the night missing four of its top receiving options in Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Aaron Dobson against a stout Denver defense. That lengthy list of absences put the pressure on several players very far down the Patriots depth chart. Some, such as running back Brandon Bolden (63-yard touchdown reception) and Scott Chandler (nine-yard touchdown reception) were able to answer to bell and help New England build a double-digit lead. There were others who made crucial mistakes under the bright lights though, none more costly than wide receiver Chris Harper. The former practice squad player served as the team’s punt returner on the night and muffed a punt return with the Patriots holding a commanding 21-7 lead. The miscue led to a short field for the Broncos and ultimately a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that jumpstarted the Denver comeback.
2. Aggression comes back to bite New England
The Broncos made the necessary plays to complete a fourth quarter comeback against the Patriots, but the visitors definitely made life a little bit easier for them in the game’s closing minutes. New England had a 1st and 10 at their own 40-yard-line with just under three minutes remaining in the game while nursing a 21-17 lead. The Broncos had one timeout at their disposal at this point, giving the Patriots ample opportunity to run down the clock by keeping the ball on the ground. Instead, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels elected to be aggressive, calling for three straight pass plays in an attempt to end to get one more first down and effectively end the game. The move failed, as Patriots gained seven yards on those three plays with a mere 18 seconds coming off the clock. A few running plays would have left Denver with less than 1:30 on the clock and a long field to drive on in tough passing conditions. In hindsight, the Patriots were better off putting more pressure on Osweiler and the Broncos offense, rather than going for the jugular.
3. AFC race for home field advantage is heating up
A win for the Patriots Sunday night would have effectively wrapped up the top seed in the AFC with just five games remaining. Instead, the Broncos played themselves back into the picture with their gritty comeback win. New England still holds a one-game lead in the AFC standings over Denver and the Cincinnati Bengals for the no. 1 seed, but the Broncos now own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Patriots. Out of all three teams, New England has the easiest schedule down the stretch, facing just two squads over the .500 mark. However, the lengthy list of injuries the Patriots are dealing with could make every week a battle moving forward. The situation makes home field advantage and even a first round bye not necessarily the lock it once was for New England in their quest to return to the Super Bowl.