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Patriots 31, Broncos 21: Three Observations

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Three observations from the Broncos’ 31-21 defeat to the New England Patriots here Sunday:

1. THERE’S A FAST PACE, AND THEN THERE’S THE PATRIOTS’ PACE:

The Broncos said they were prepared for the Patriots’ ├╝ber-quick tempo, in which they not only eschewed the huddle, but often snapped the football with 25 or 28 seconds left on the play clock at a pace that resembled Mike D’Antoni’s seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns — or Paul Westhead’s Loyola Marymount teams and failed Nuggets squads of the early 1990′s — than anything seen in this sport.

In the first half, the Patriots ran a play every 22.6 seconds they had the ball — even quicker than the Broncos’ rate of one snap every 25 seconds. New England often snapped the football with as many as 25-28 seconds left on the play clock, giving Denver’s defense no chance to substitute — or even to catch its collective breath.

“It almost looked like we’d never seen it before, but we prepared for that all week. We’ve just got to make sure we carry things over from practice and meeting room to the game,” said cornerback Champ Bailey.

Studying it in meetings and on the iPad-based playbooks was one thing. It was something else in person.

“It caught us off guard,” said linebacker Joe Mays. “He knew they were fast; we knew they were going to get to the huddle, get to the line of scrimmage and hike the ball, but it’s the difference from seeing it on film to playing against it. It’s a lot different.”

2. THIS GAME WAS LOST ON BOBBLES:

Simplistic? Yes. But the Broncos lugged a turnover ratio of minus-two onto the team buses Sunday, dropping them to minus-6 for the season, and have — amazingly — lost all seven fumbles they’ve committed this season.

While the dropped passes are down from the season-high six of two weeks ago, one led directly to a turnover on downs, when Willis McGahee — in the midst of his worst game as a Bronco — dropped an easy fourth-down catch in the right flat with 10:54 remaining and the Broncos trailing 31-14. Seven minutes and six seconds later, he fumbled.

“I’ve just got to be a better pro than what I’ve been doing lately. All I can say is that I can get better,” McGahee said.

Joining McGahee in the one-fumble, one-drop column was Demaryius Thomas, who at least got his wobbles out of the way on the first series and rebounded with some magnificent receptions, including a one-handed, 30-yard catch late in the first quarter. But Thomas has lost fumbles in the open field in two consecutive games — and counting a fumble lost on the desperate last play against Houston on Sept. 23, has three fumbles in as many weeks. He also has three drops in the last three games after letting Manning’s pass sail through his hands.

Worse was that McGahee and Thomas’ fumbles came inside the New England 15-yard-line — which, in a 10-point loss, proved to be the difference. The Patriots lived up to their reputation as thieves; they now have 14 takeaways. The Broncos now have 10 giveaways this season — and have forced just four turnovers.

Denver’s defense is designed to play from ahead and force takeaways. Rarely has it done either. It’s no wonder that its form through five games has been disappointing.

3. DON’T WORRY ABOUT PEYTON. HE’S FINE.

And he’s the by far the least of this team’s issues – something John Fox already understands.

“I don’t know if he’s way up on the list of my worries, to be quite honest with you,” Fox said. “This is a football team mixing it all together. You saw a week ago, we put it all together. I would have expected us to put it all together a little more this week and we fell short of that.”

Expecting such a complete performance against the Patriots was unreasonable; the Patriots are as far removed from the Raiders as Boston is from Oakland on a map. But Manning did just fine; the lost fumble didn’t help, but he had a typical Manning game: 31-of-44, 345 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 116.2 rating that was 11.6 points higher than Brady’s.

Through five games, Manning has completed 66.0 percent of his passes and his per-game average performance is 26.0 completions in 39.4 attempts for 301.4 yards and 2.2 touchdowns and 0.6 interceptions. Why point these numbers out? Because Manning is on pace to set Broncos single-season records for yardage, attempts, completions and touchdown passes and just a whisper off pace in quarterback rating.

The doubts about Manning’s effectiveness at the age of 36 after four neck surgeries are fading. The questions now revolve around his supporting cast, and whether it can reach something close to Manning’s level.

Manning, to his credit, is trying to keep the faith.

“Well, I stick with them. I told Willis after the fumble and the other fourth down when we had it, and I told Demaryius after that — I’m with them,” Manning said.

He has no other option — although at this point, it’s easier for Manning to drag his offensive teammates closer to his plateau than the defense, which allowed the Patriots to amass a club-record 35 first downs — the most ever allowed by the Broncos in a regular-season game.

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