DENVER - The Jumbotron flashed “Believe,’’ but the Broncos were fresh out of miraculous comebacks.
Tim Tebow was last seen scrambling backward in a zigzag fashion, finally taken down by Rob Ninkovich for a 28-yard sack as the Patriots prevailed, 41-23, snapping one of the most unexpected six-game winning streaks. The Broncos (8-6) participated in their own destruction, primarily with three second-quarter fumbles and two critical third-quarter defensive penalties.
“I think all in all we hung in there physically, but mentally I thought there were certain areas as far as dropping the ball on the ground,’’ Broncos coach John Fox said. “Turnovers were the biggest difference. You’re not going to be minus-three against New England and win many ballgames.’’
The usually late-starting Broncos altered course and dominated the first quarter with 10 minutes 45 seconds of possession to gain a 13-7 lead. A field goal early in the second quarter gave Denver a 16-7 advantage, marking three scores on the first three possessions for the first time this season.
“We were rolling hard,’’ said running back Lance Ball. “Then we had a bump in the road and it lingered with us.’’
The first bump was a hamstring injury sustained by Willis McGahee after he zipped through the Patriots for 59 yards on five carries in the first quarter. The next bump was a fumble by Ball, who took most of McGahee’s carries, followed by a Tebow fumble on a misplayed pitchout.
“He [defensive end Mark Anderson] came in very fast and I probably should have handed off,’’ Tebow said. “[Anderson] did a great job, but I have to do a better job. We hold onto the ball in this game and who knows what happens. You know [Tom] Brady’s going to make his plays, you’ve got to give them props, but at the same time we have to hang onto the ball, and that’s my fault.’’
The fumbles led to 10 points by New England for a 24-16 lead, which the visitors would never surrender.
After an exchange of possessions, Broncos returner Quan Cosby fumbled a punt, leading to another Patriots field goal.
When asked if Cosby should have handled the ball, Fox said: “In games, people make mistakes, [me] included, that wasn’t the way it was expected to go.’’
Given its comeback nature, Denver’s sights were not diminished. With the Patriots on third and 24 from their 6 on the opening drive of the third quarter, the Broncos self-destructed again when Robert Ayers was called for an illegal use of the hands penalty. New England wound up punting, but not after running off seven more plays.
That was only the start of Denver’s mental errors on defense. Chris Harris was penalized for holding and Ryan McBean was assessed 15 yards for a facemask penalty, boosting another New England drive that ended with Danny Woodhead’s 10-yard TD run for a 34-16 lead with 45 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Even Tebow and the Broncos, who were spoofed by “Saturday Night Live,’’ as having Jesus on their side in the fourth quarter, could not recover from that deficit. It took all of Tebow’s elusive talents to avoid a safety in the fourth quarter as he fumbled a shotgun snap, scooped up the ball in the end zone, and threw an incompletion.
Finally, showing a flash of recent fourth-quarter play, Tebow drove his team 89 yards on seven plays for a touchdown. But the Patriots and Brady responded with an 80-yard drive to regain the 18-point lead.
Tebow, who completed three of his first four passes and ran for 37 yards in the first quarter, finished 11 for 22 for 194 yards. He gained 93 yards on the ground on 12 carries. Along with his one lost fumble, he was sacked four times for 53 yards.