Oh, where to begin on Sunday night’s 34-31 loss in New England, where the Broncos blew a 24-0 lead at halftime and eventually lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in overtime.
Not only does the loss hurt the Broncos as the American Football Conference’s playoff picture is so very tight this year, it just sucks to lose to Brady, Rob Gronkowski and that walking hoodie, Bill Belichick. Under most circumstances, I would usually write some longwinded rant about how the Patriots got lucky or how Tom Brady’s postgame sweater was actually on the clearance rack in Wal-Mart or how slobby Belichick looks in a cut up hoody.
No, I don’t need to do that here. The Patriots stuck with their game plan, despite being down by 24 points following a disastrous first half of football. Brady stayed calm (except when freaking out on an official) and led his team to victory in overtime. And while the Patriots should get the credit they deserve for winning that game, there were Broncos mistakes that were major factors in turning the game around for the Patriots.
First, Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hurt himself on the final play of the first half when he dove for a Tom Brady hail Mary desperation pass as time expired. I understand it was his defensive back instinct to dive for an interception but that one was stupid. He drove his shoulder into the ground in doing so busted himself up enough so he couldn’t return to the game. The possibility that this would have been an interception was slim. The chance of Rodgers-Cromartie actually returning it for a touchdown was even slimmer. I know it was a reaction but it was a stupid reaction and it changed the game.
“I would say it definitely hurt us,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris told the Associated Press.
When Brady came out onto the field after a halftime ass chewing by the Hoodie, he knew right away that Denver’s secondary was hobbled with Rodgers-Cromartie on the bench. Without him, the Broncos had to switch from man coverage to zone, thus hurting the pass rush that gave the Broncos the 24-0 lead in the first place. Without a pass rush, Tom Brady can make you pay. Of Brady’s 344 yards of passing, 263 of those came during the second half.
The Rodgers-Cromartie injury was the biggest turning point in the game for the Broncos and it was a turning point that didn’t have to happen. The second-biggest turning point in the game came just before Rodgers-Cromartie got hurt when Broncos punt returner Trindon Holliday muffed the punt and handed the ball over to the Patriots. Because of that lost fumble and because Holliday is, frankly, Mr. Butterfingers, Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio made Wes Welker the Broncos return man for the rest of the game.
Now I know Welker is a seasoned veteran of the game and that he’s sure handed when it comes to catching and handling the ball but every time he went back to return a punt, I was nervous as hell. In a tight, dogfight of a game between two of the best AFC teams, having Welker returning punts just didn’t seem right. Of course, in the end it was Welker’s miscommunication on a punt return late into overtime that effectively gave the Patriots the field position to win the game with a field goal. I just don’t understand why Welker was back returning punts. The Broncos have that guy on the squad for two reasons: Third and seven situations and third and goal situations. That's it. Welker is not our return man.
The problem here is that our return man is Trindon Holliday. Yes, he’s exciting and he’s got speed to return one here and there. But, as we saw on Sunday night, he’s a liability. He’s a liability that a high-powered offensive team like the Broncos don’t need. Yes, we love a 96-yard return here and there. But we don’t need it. The Broncos have Peyton Manning who, in case you haven’t noticed, can score a hell of a lot of points. What we need is a return man who can secure the football. It’s plain and simple. I don’t care if the guy is the slowest in the league. If he can catch a punt and do it over and over again, he will fit into the Broncos system.
Trindon Holliday does not fit into the Broncos system. He fails at handing the ball over to Peyton Manning’s offense. Holliday should be cut, just like the Houston Texans did not too long ago. Holliday, in this tight playoff race, is just too much of a liability. Who can the Broncos go to? I don’t know. But I have to believe there is someone out there who can catch a punt. It’s the damned N.F.L. for goodness sakes. Get a pro who can catch a punt.
In the end, the Broncos matched the biggest collapse in their history, according to the AP. It was back in 1988 when the Broncos blew a 24-0 lead against the Raiders in a 30-27 overtime loss.
As the Broncos move forward, the number one thing they can do to improve their team is find a sound punt returner. All of the other pieces to a successful puzzle are in place. It sounds like Rodgers-Cromartie will be back for this week’s huge game against the Chiefs. It also sounds like tight end Julius Thomas will be returning as well. Running back Knowshon Moreno was listed on Tuesday as day-to-day with an ankle injury.
There’s not a lot of positives to say about the Broncos following the loss to the Patriots. It was a terrible, terrible loss that will haunt Bronco fans for years to come. It’s one of those that stings over and over.
On the other hand, I always believe that if you are going to face a very good team like the Patriots in the playoffs, it’s almost better to lose the regular season game. That loss can often give a team the edge to win the second game. It’s likely the Broncos would have to face Brady and Co. again in the playoffs. Sunday night’s loss left such a bad taste in Denver’s mouth, I like the Broncos chances in a rematch in the playoffs. You know Peyton is pissed.