The Denver Broncos had perhaps the easiest possible assignment to keep pace in the AFC playoff picture on Sunday.
They blew it.
Facing a 3-11 New England Patriots team that entered the week ranked last in the NFL in points scored, the Broncos stumbled their way into a 26-23 loss to all but dash their dark-horse playoff hopes. The team’s record now sits at 7-8, with six teams ahead of them for three wild-card spots and two games left to play.
Patriots kicker Chad Ryland, who had been struggling through his rookie season and missed a field goal and extra point earlier in the game, connected on a 56-yard field goal through the thin air to put Denver away.
After starting the season 1-5, including their unholy shellacking at the hands of the Miami Dolphins, the Broncos reeled off a five-game win streak to regain the dignity that had eluded them so far in the Russell Wilson era. However, with this Patriots loss, the team has now lost three of its last four.
The Broncos appeared to at least be on track for an ugly win early in the game, mostly thanks to a 52-yard return from Marvin Mims that set up a quick touchdown drive. They entered halftime with a 7-3 lead, then came out of the locker room and lost the plot on offense.
Here are Denver’s first five drives of the second half: 3 plays, 0 yards; 4 plays, 5 yards; 3 plays, -12 yards; 0 plays, 0 yards; 3 plays, -6 yards. All told: 13 plays, -13 yards. Patriots defensive lineman Christian Barmore was personally responsible for -25 yards on three sacks, one of which was a strip sack recovered by Denver.
In case you’re wondering what that zero-yard drive was, it was Mims giving the Patriots a thoughtful Christmas gift with this kick return fumble:
The Broncos entered the fourth quarter down 16 points, but their offense finally got things together with two back-to-back long touchdown drives. Wilson performed like he was worth two first-round picks, two-second round picks and more, connecting with Mims for maybe the biggest play of the game to set up the first touchdown.
No player saw bigger swings than Mims this game, especially when the officials ruled he did maintain control of the ball as he went down on that play.
The Broncos converted both two-point attempts to tie the game, but came up short on their final drive, setting up Ryland’s redemption.
It should have been a great day for Denver. Three of the teams they needed to lose — the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals — all lost this week. A win would have put the Broncos in a five-way tie for the seventh seed in the AFC, with two plum matchups against the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders to end the season.
Instead, the Broncos now need some incredible luck just to have a chance. And they showed Sunday night how things go when things break their way.