As Patriots soar, Broncos are facing sudden, serious questions

It wasn’t that long ago that a Denver-New England battle was the highlight of the month in the NFL, not just the highlight of the week. But Peyton Manning is long retired, the Broncos’ most recent Super Bowl championship fades further in the distance with every day, and this matchup isn’t about what is, only what was.

By a score of 41-16, the New England Patriots methodically demolished the Denver Broncos, which are but a faint orange shadow of the world champion Broncos of 2015. This follows the Patriots decimating the Atlanta Falcons in a Super Bowl rematch, and pretty much working over all but two teams they’ve come in contact with this year. And with the dregs of the AFC East yet to come on their schedule, there’s no reason to think New England won’t have another wide-open, gold-bricked highway to the AFC championship and the Super Bowl.

It’s not going well for Vance Joseph. (AP)

On the flip side, the Broncos are in full meltdown mode. They’ve lost five straight, and there’s no indication that this team is capable of making a run at a wild-card spot. Brock Osweiler is still Denver’s quarterback, and Osweiler won praise simply because he didn’t vomit on himself at midfield. The defense was overwhelmed, special teams were anything but, and Vance Joseph has suddenly rocketed into the coaches’ hot seat conversation.

The special teams will draw plenty of scrutiny this week. A fumbled punt, a blocked punt, penalties and misplays … special teams gaffes led to 24 New England points on Sunday evening, and there’s no excuse for that level of incompetence. The low point was debatable: a first-quarter, 103-yard Dion Lewis kickoff return for a touchdown? A fourth-quarter too-many-men-on-the-field penalty during a punt that led to a New England first down and, later, a touchdown? So much to choose from, so much pain at every turn. Joseph may not see 2018 on the Broncos sideline, but if he goes, special teams coach Brock Olivo is likely to go with him.

The carnage began early in Denver, as the Patriots went three-and-out, but Broncos return man Isaiah McKenzie muffed the punt. Two and a half minutes into the game, the Patriots were on the board, and the Broncos never got close. The Patriots ran up scores of 7-3, 14-6, 20-9, 27-16, 34-16, 41-16 … every time the Broncos got anywhere close to a score, the Patriots added another, finally hammering down on the gas and vanishing into the distance.

Tom Brady turned in a typical Brady gem, going 25-of-34 for 266 yards and three touchdowns, spreading the ball around to nine receivers. New England is relentless and ever-regenerating, and they’ll be Super Bowl favorites until five years after Brady and Belichick are gone.

So what’s ahead for these two teams? New England has divisional matchups against Buffalo and Miami, another against the Jets, and two AFC battles against Oakland and Pittsburgh. Of all those games, only Pittsburgh, at first glance, merits more than a first glance … and that’s only if Pittsburgh gets all of its brilliant playmakers playing together at once. Denver, meanwhile, has what should be winnable games against the Jets, Indianapolis, and Washington on its schedule, but as long as the Broncos can’t trust either its quarterback play or its special teams, Denver has a tough road to play in January.

Heads up, NFL. The Patriots are back, not that they ever really left. And Denver, as unimaginable as this would have seemed a few weeks ago, might be done by December.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.