Curran: There's no excusing Patriots' performance vs. Denver


But, but, but, but, but ... I get it. Things were stacked against the Patriots on Sunday.

But if the Tennessee Titans can have COVID-19 cut a swath through their organization and blast the talented Buffalo Bills last Tuesday, doesn’t the “Boy, it’s been a tough couple weeks...” defense lose a little bit of validity here in New England?

The Patriots would have been better Sunday had they not missed a week of practices and had their offensive line jumbled by COVID and injuries. No doubt. But in “we don’t make excuses, we’ve never made excuses” land, that’s no sanctuary after getting mightily outplayed by the Denver Broncos.

The one-win Broncos. The Broncos whose one win came against the nearly-dead Jets. The Broncos playing without their best offensive player (Noah Fant), lead running back (Melvin Gordon) and best defensive player (Von Miller). The Broncos who had as much stop-start irritation as the Patriots did waiting for this game to be played and had a small dose of the COVID themselves.

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Here’s the bottom line: The Patriots actually had more excuses at their disposal against the Chiefs. They lost their quarterback unexpectedly on Saturday morning. They had to fly on two planes with plenty of personal trepidation and jam the whole commute into a one-day timeframe. Yet they played great against a great team. Yet against a lesser team, they played so badly they shouldn’t have been as close as they were.

One more bottom line? The Patriots now have two admirable losses, one soup-to-nuts domination, a punch-the-clock victory and a burn-the-tapes loss. Anyone saying they can draw a bulletproof conclusion from that is a buffoon.



The Broncos had zero regard for the Patriots passing game and all the respect in the world for their ability to run.

Which is why – time after time – Denver sent blitzes and pressures at the Patriots' reconfigured offensive line.

The oversimplified defensive logic? The Patriots aren’t fast enough to get behind or separate from coverage and we will we get to Cam before they do.

Here’s an illustration of that:

After the Patriots' first drive ended with a tipped-ball pick, their second drive was harpooned by a 1-yard run by Rex Burkhead on first-and-10 from the Denver 40. Then came a 9-yard sack of Cam Newton when he held the ball for a Bledsoevian period of time while surveying downfield.

Newton seemed to think he was the only man on the planet as he look-look-looked for someone to come open out of the group of N’Keal Harry, Julian Edelman and Damiere Byrd. Apparently, no one did. They should have, given the time Newton had and the lack of humans left in the secondary. But that’s the issue New England has at the skill positions. They are slow. Still.

Diminishing returns

Cam Newton's QB rating against the Broncos Sunday. His QB rating has slipped in every game so far (100.7, 94.6, 73.8, 51.6).

So teams will load up to stop their running game and dare them to throw over the top. Newton saw Sunday what Tom Brady saw most of 2019. The Patriots running backs combined for 15 carries and 41 yards. So it was left to Newton to create through the air without a legitimate tight end and a receiver group that remains slow and unable to get open.

He couldn’t do it.

The slowness was something we wrote about in June. Only Green Bay had a projected collection of slower skill players.

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Adding Newton has masked some of the issue. His presence means defenses have to account for him and have one less player to drop in coverage. The team’s overall running ability – which he’s part of – has been productive enough to keep the Patriots out of second and third-and-long. And, on the day they ripped it up against the Seahawks, they were playing a historically bad pass defense.

But this game was déjà vu right down to the part near the end when the Patriots dove into the same gadget bag they used with Brady trying to come up with a chunk play. They got two – a 22-yard throwback completion by Julian Edelman to Newton and 16-yard reverse throw from Edelman to James White.

It’s games like this when the Patriots miss having a relevant tight end. Or even a player they believe will routinely win on 50-50 balls. But the player we all presumed would do that – N’Keal Harry – continues to be an utter non-factor. He didn’t see a target in the first half on Sunday. The first throw Newton sent his way was tipped and picked. The second came on New England's final offensive play of the game.


To keep a player who’s on the field as much as Harry without a target, you almost have to TRY to avoid throwing to him. It’s not like defensive coordinators are staying awake nights conjuring schemes to stop him.


Brian Hoyer got rightly vilified for the mental errors he committed against Kansas City and had to answer for them.

On Sunday, after Bill Belichick blew a chance to challenge an obviously bad spot on a third-down play, the head coach didn’t deign to respond.  

On the play in question, a third-and-3 from the Patriots 15, James White was flung forward at the end of what officials ruled was a 2-yard run. Replay showed he was clearly past the line to gain. The Patriots – trailing 18-3 with 12:06 left – failed to challenge.

Asked by NESN’s Doug Kyed if he considered challenging, Belichick muttered, “Uh, no. Not really.”

Kyed asked the sensible follow-up given the evidence we’d all seen. “Did you get a good look at the replay?”

“I just answered the question, Doug.”

Amazing Patriots streak ends with loss to Broncos

But he hadn’t. See, this was an entirely different question which, of course, Belichick knew.

This isn’t a Senate hearing so I don’t blame Kyed or anyone for not getting into a “But no you didn’t…” back-and-forth with Belichick which will have diminishing returns.

But by the same token, this isn’t a Senate hearing. It’s a question about a play in an October football game in 2020. Lighten up, William.


Check these numbers for the Denver defense – four sacks, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles, eight quarterback hits, six tackles for loss and two picks. Some of that is on the jumbled offensive line. Some of it is on the lack of practice time. Some of it is credit to the Broncos. We’ll figure the percentages later. …

The Patriots got pretty well gashed on the ground. Why? Especially when Ja’Whaun Bentley appeared to be having one of his best games this season? Byron Cowart didn’t play (COVID), Adam Butler hurt his already ailing shoulder and Beau Allen, who the Patriots signed as a replacement for Danny Shelton, remains on injured reserve. None of that helped a single bit. …

It will be good to get an eyeful of the Niners Sunday night. They’ll be in Foxboro next Sunday after hosting the Rams on SNF.