FOXBOROUGH - As a cocaptain and team leader, Lawyer Milloy usually addresses the media after games. Not yesterday. He was so upset he declined interviews, and his frustration was evident when he punched the locker room door on his way out following a 24-16 loss to the Denver Broncos yesterday.
He was upset because after his team successfully targeted September (3-1) it now has managed to massacre October (0-3). The Patriots are the first Super Bowl team to have lost four straight since the 1999 Broncos.
They now face a stretch of three road games, starting against Drew Bledsoe’s 5-3 Buffalo Bills, who are only a half-game behind the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins after a 24-17 win over visiting Detroit yesterday.
In falling to 3-4 - the same record they had a year ago after a loss in Denver - the Patriots continued collecting bad penalties (8 for 83 yards) and third-down woes, converting just 3 for 12 (25 percent), while allowing the Broncos to convert 8 for 13 (62 percent).
“In the end, we need to do a better job defensively than we did. But I give credit to the Broncos. They just made more plays than we did today,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose postgame press conference was a record-low 2 minutes 46 seconds.
Though some players thought progress was made after two weeks of workouts and back to basics training Belichick implemented, they were small steps. Sometimes small steps are needed for larger gains, but time is beginning to be of the essence for the Super Bowl champions.
“We can’t keep committing penalties like we have,” said defensive end Willie McGinest. “We’re just killing ourselves. We’re not giving ourselves a chance to make plays and stop people when we make stupid penalties. We may have made some progress, but we lost the game. That’s the bottom line.”
The Patriots, who one by one spoke about the need to get off to a better start (they trailed, 14-0, early yesterday), committed eight penalties, but it was an uncalled infraction by the Broncos that hurt New England late. It was an obvious face mask during a Trevor Pryce sack of Tom Brady. The Patriots trailed by 8 at the time, but the penalty made it a third-and-22 situation rather than an essential first down needed to keep the drive alive.
“I don’t think [the Patriots] are as confident as they were before,” said Denver linebacker Al Wilson. “They are in a slump right now.”
New England allowed its fifth straight 100-yard rusher, Clinton Portis (26 carries for 111 yards), while Patriots backs gained 69 yards on 19 carries.
However, the team intensity seemed better. The play calling (Brady completed 15 for 29 for 130 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions) was also more balanced.
Trailing, 21-7, at halftime, the Patriots began the comeback with Adam Vinatieri’s 26-yard field goal. Then came a 40-yard punt return by Deion Branch, who nearly broke it but was tripped by punter Tom Rouen at the Patriot 35.
A pair of short passes to Troy Brown (10 and 12 yards) led to an eventual 8-yard toss to tight end Christian Fauria for a touchdown, five seconds into the fourth quarter. The Patriots missed a 2-point conversion attempt when Brady overthrew David Patten in the end zone, and it remained 21-16.
The Broncos could have solidified the outcome sooner, but Jason Elam missed a pair of second-half field goals.
The Patriots started the game with the “Big Nickel” (three safeties) and got little bang for their buck. Ken Walter’s shank off the side of his left foot didn’t help, either. It gave the Broncos good field position at the 48, after Ian Gold had sacked Brady for a 3-yard loss on third and 5 to end the Patriots’ first series with an ugly thump.
The Broncos found a hole in the Big Nickel immediately. Brian Griese (18 of 23, 229 yards) tossed a slant to Rod Smith, who weaved his way for a 21-yard gain to the Patriots 27. Another key pass was Griese to Shannon Sharpe for 15 yards. Portis did the rest, carrying it four times and finally capping the drive with a 1-yard run with 10:08 remaining in the first quarter.
The Broncos wasted little time padding their lead.
They marched 72 yards on nine plays, using a little bit of Portis, a little bit of the passing game. Griese cranked one up over the middle to Ed McCaffrey for 20 yards to the 8-yard line as the first quarter ended. On the first play of the second quarter, Griese found Sharpe over a diving Otis Smith in the back of end zone, making it 14-0.
Ty Law made two big first-half plays - a first-quarter interception of Griese, and a fumble recovery of Rod Smith’s drop following a Victor Green hit. Law pounced on the ball at the Denver 42-yard line with 10:10 remaining in the second quarter. The Broncos challenged the ruling, feeling Smith’s knee was down, but officials upheld the call.
The Patriots finally capitalized, bringing life to what had been a church-like crowd.
New England jump-started its offense with its seldom-used running game.
Antowain Smith (13 carries, 58 yards) ran some nifty counters for 9, 12, and 3 yards, the final carry cutting the deficit in half. Smith, however, came up limping, but did leave the field under his own power. He did not return for the remainder of the first half. He returned and ran well in the second half with what the team called a bruised left leg.
New England’s momentum, however, lasted as long as a jelly-filled Krispy Kreme.
It didn’t help that on the first play, Tebucky Jones interfered with Sharpe, giving Denver a first down at its 46. Meanwhile, McCaffrey continued to get the best of New England’s small corners. He made a 15-yard catch over Terrell Buckley at the Patriots 25, and then made a sprawling catch over Buckley on the sideline for 14 yards to the 5-yard line. From there, Portis ran for a yard and then cashed in from 4, increasing Denver’s lead to 21-6.
The crowd was stunned silent again. It revived twice more prior to the end of the first half - once in mock cheer of the Patriots special teams cover unit downing the ball inside the 5-yard line with 9 seconds remaining in the half, and the ovation of boos when the team came off at the half.
The good news was the traffic jam outside Gillette Stadium wasn’t as severe as usual. Small consolation for Patriots fans who expected much more than this.