By: Bob George/
October 16, 2005

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DENVER -- Someone actually discovered that the Patriots just went through the toughest opening six games in NFL history.

If that be the case, given all the injuries the Patriots have sustained thus far in the 2005 season, getting to the bye week even at 3-3 is pretty darned good. And this includes Sunday's performance at Invesco Field at Mile High, where the Patriots spotted the Denver Broncos a 28-3 lead, then put on a furious fourth quarter rally before falling short, 28-20. The Patriots now have a week off to let their wounds heal, and may just get their star middle linebacker back by the time they host Indianapolis in two weeks.

The Patriots were not able to overcome a hail of long gainers by the Broncos in the second quarter which put the Patriots in a deep hole and helped get the vaunted Bronco home crowd into the game. The Patriots also suffered from a poor running game, with Corey Dillon a scratch from the game despite being dressed on the sidelines and available for game action. Tom Brady was solely responsible for winning this game for the Patriots, and he took the team as far as he could until there was simply no time left for him to do anything more.

Offensively, the Broncos found a fish in Duane Starks. Jake Plummer torched him frequently in the first half, and the results were disastrous for the most part. On the second play of the second quarter, Rod Smith ran a deep slant right pattern, running right by Starks and taking it 72 yards to the Patriot 5. Tatum Bell took it in from the 4 two plays later. On the second play of the next drive, Ashley Lelie ran the same pattern on Starks and took it 56 yards to the Patriot 17. Denver made it 14-3 three plays later when Plummer found Smith on a 7-yard fade pattern, again with Starks defending.

The other long gainer which killed the Patriots came two drives later in the second quarter. Again, on the second play of the drive, Bell took a handoff, ran towards the middle of the Patriot defense, found a hole and cut back to his left and took off on a 68-yard run before he was finally run down by Asante Samuel at the Patriot 11. Two plays later the Broncos made it 21-3 on a one-yard scoring toss to Kyle Johnson.

The Broncos completed their scoring on the opening drive of the third quarter. Bell covered 32 yards on a run and a pass, then Smith took a flat pass and scampered 21 yards to the Patriot 21. Four plays later, Mike Anderson ran two yards up the gut to make it 28-3. The Patriots at this time were totally beaten up, totally unable to stop the Bronco offense, but not defeated.

Showing their championship mettle, at a time where the Broncos were laying them to waste, credit the Patriots for making a game of it and having the game come down to the last drive. After being stuffed for a three-and-out, the Patriots went on to score 17 unanswered points on their next three possessions while shutting down the Broncos in the process. What seemed to spark the Patriots on their comeback was a 49-yard pass from Brady to Tim Dwight on third and 8 from their own 34. This led to an Adam Vinatieri field goal from 38 yards four plays later.

David Givens got the Patriots jump-started on the next drive with catches of 15 and 17 yards. After an illegal formation penalty, Deion Branch caught a pass for 13 yards, then Patrick Pass ran up the middle for 11 yards. Short passes to Ben Watson and Branch got the Patriots to the Denver 8, where Pass (10 carries for 64 yards in relief of Dillon) was able to pound it in for a score on the next play.

Pass was the star of the next drive, which got the Patriots to within one score of the Broncos. On second down from the Patriot 29, Pass took a screen pass in the right flat and raced 32 yards to the Denver 39. Pass then ripped off runs of eight and 17 yards to get the Patriots to the Denver 8. Brady then found Givens at the back of the end zone for a touchdown, on a play where Givens seemed to be pushed out of bounds in the process, but replay showed that he did get two feet down before he went out.

It was 28-20 at this point, and the Patriots did manage to get the ball back after giving up only one first down to Denver. The Patriots were pinned back at their own 8, but there was 5:02 left in the game and Brady had two timeouts. What seemed to be a routine drive to the end zone ended prematurely, and a dropped pass by Givens on what should have been a 17-yard gain into Denver territory was the play which doomed the Patriots in the end. Brady was called for intentional grounding two plays later, and eventually the Patriots had to punt. Denver was able to kill off the remaining 3:36 of the contest.

Brady was under siege all day long (Logan Mankins was ejected from the game at the end of the first half, which certainly didn't help), suffering numerous hits and hurrying many of his throws. He completed only 24 of 46 passes for 299 yards, and came away with a passer rating of only 79.9. Meanwhile, Plummer, in his first game ever against the Patriots, was 17 of 24 for 262 yards, and a passer rating of 134.4. Plummer was the benefactor of good line blocking, and was also the benefactor of those two long gains to Smith and Lelie. Otherwise, Plummer played well but not anything terribly spectacular.

Brady can grouse all he wants when opposing head coaches comment on the injury situation, but there has to be a limit as to how much the Patriots can go on with player after player riding the pine. On Sunday, you had Dillon out all game long, Troy Brown and Richard Seymour among the scratches, Mankins and his ejection, James Sanders becoming the third strong safety to be injured this year, and guys who are taking their place (Starks, running back Amos Zereoue) who simply can't contribute the way Bill Belichick would like them to. To have the Patriots sitting at 3-3 (and tied for first in the division with Buffalo) despite all this trouble shows what a championship heart this team has.

The Patriots now get a week off. They can take two weeks to prepare for a Colt team which historically spits the bit in Foxborough, even with the Patriots depleted with injuries. Tedy Bruschi has been given official clearance to resume playing, and his return, while still awaiting family approval, will be welcomed by all the players. The Patriots still can see bright days ahead, and they can consider their first six weeks as adequate at worst and successful at best.

And if the Patriots can heal at least some of their owies, they can look back on these six weeks and take a ton of confidence into battle against any of their remaining opponents.