DENVER — Chris Harper was a huge topic of conversation leading up to the Patriots' showdown with the Broncos Sunday night at Sports Authority Field.
He ended up being a huge story after the game — but for all the wrong reasons for the undrafted rookie free agent receiver/returner.
With the Patriots having just taken a 21-7 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter on Brandon Bolden's 63-yard catch-and-run from Tom Brady, the defense stepped up with a three-and-out, forcing three straight incompletions from Brock Osweiler.
Momentum was on New England's side and the packed house of Broncos fans were sitting quiet in the slowly falling snow as their team's chances at pulling the upset were slowly slipping away.
The Patriots were getting the ball back and Brady was going to have a chance to send the orange-clad faithful packing to their snow-covered cars and homes.
Britton Colquitt stepped up and launched a 45-yard punt to the New England 35-yard line, where Harper settled under it. He muffed it, however, and Shaquil Barrett pounced on it.
The ball was gone — and so was New England's momentum. Both shifted to Denver. The Broncos scored 17 straight points and then claimed the 30-24 victory in overtime.
Harper, who had made a rapid ascent up the depth chart after injuries to receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola created opportunities, failed to seize his biggest one.
Locked in as the No. 3 receiver, Harper didn't get an offensive snap until the Patriots' final possession and was never targeted. He finished with three punt returns for 17 yards, but the muff will likely be the only one he remembers.
He declined a request to speak after the game.
Coach Bill Belichick declined to get specific when asked about the impact of the botched punt.
"There were a lot of big plays in the game,'' he said. "Could have coached better, could have played better. But guys really played hard, I have all the respect in the world for this football team, the way they competed. Disappointed in the result, but we'll get back to work this week and get ready for Philadelphia.''
After a spectacular training camp, Harper, a Cal product who likely didn't see much playing time in conditions similar to Sunday night's, made the original 53-man roster and was on the field for opening night against the Steelers. He didn't accumulate any statistics. He was released and signed to the practice squad Sept. 17.
Harper bided his time on the scout team and his patience was rewarded when he was re-signed to the active roster Nov. 17 following Edelman's broken foot suffered against the Giants.
With the receiving corps still thin, Harper likely will be given more opportunities to bounce back from Sunday's disappointment. The same can be said for the rest of the Patriots.