By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots lost their undefeated season on Sunday night in Denver. They also lost their most dominant offensive player in Rob Gronkowski.
It was, in short, a rough night in Denver.
But as always, the game had its ups and downs. Though the Gronkowski injury is the obvious story after the game, there was much that shouldn't be forgotten. So here are the Four Ups and Four Downs from the Broncos' 30-24 overtime win over the Patriots. And because it was a New England loss, let's start with the Downs.
The 6-foot-6 tight end is a mountain of a man, so to see him writhing in pain is obviously a bad sign. And considering his history, with the arm that broke multiple times and with that same right knee which was torn by T.J. Ward almost two years ago to the day, Patriots fans watching at home instantly felt sick to their stomachs. It certainly looked like a season-ending -- and, consequently, Super Bowl-dream-ending -- injury.
Yet the early reports from ESPN and NFL Network were positive for Gronkowski, so all hope is not lost. Still, that injury was without a doubt the worst thing that happened to the Patriots on Sunday night.
The Patrick Chung Penalty
I listed the whole penalty on purpose, because I'm not entirely sure that Patrick Chung was at fault.
The incident in question came with 1:25 left in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots clinging to a 21-17 lead. Alan Branch thoroughly dominated center Matt Paradis and sacked Brock Osweiler for a loss of eight yards, which would have forced a third-and-goal from the 15-yard line and would have kept the clock running. With an inexperienced QB, in that situation, the odds might have favored the Patriots.
Instead, a flag was thrown in the end zone for defensive holding on Chung, and the Broncos were given a first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. The Broncos scored on the following play to take a 24-21 lead on a play where an Evan Mathis illegal hands to the face foul went uncalled by Corrente.
On the penalty, Chung's left hand did make slight contact with receiver Demaryius Thomas, who looked to simply slip on the snow-covered turf. It was a call that stood out for its obvious timing, but also because it had not been called once in the previous 58-plus minutes of the game. Thomas also hadn't exactly been fighting for much throughout the night, though that's more anecdotal than it is something the officiating crew considers when making a call.
Tony Corrente's officiating crew made some questionable calls (the offensive pass interference on Gronkowski being a big one), but this defensive holding penalty was an example of the officials playing much too big of a factor in determining the outcome of the game.
With Brock Osweiler starting his second-ever NFL game, it was obvious that the Broncos would need to run to win. And though the Patriots' run defense stood tall earlier, the combination of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson ended up having their way with the New England D.
It was accentuated, obviously, on the 48-yard, game-winning scamper by Anderson in overtime, but it was the run game that allowed the Broncos to sustain their long drives throughout the night and possess the ball for 36:31. Anderson ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries for an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Hillman picked up 59 more yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, and the Broncos finished the night with 179 total rushing yards. The Patriots entered the night averaging just 88 rushing yards per game.
Of course, much of the struggle in stopping the run had to do with Dont'a Hightower suffering a knee injury in the second quarter. Like Gronkowski, Hightower's injury does not appear to be serious, considering the team let him stand on the sideline for the entirety of the second half. But still, given that Jamie Collins has not yet made it back onto the field after battling a long illness, a Patriots defense without Collins and Hightower is a sight that not many New Englanders want to see.
Granted, the Patriots will probably be able to out-class their remaining five opponents, but Hightower's knee injury in the second quarter made a huge impact on the game and is a big reason why the Patriots are no longer undefeated.
Sorry, kid. This is the NFL, and there's no margin for error, whether you're an All-Pro receiver or whether you're an undrafted rookie in your second career game.
And it was Harper's costly mistake that breathed life into a Denver team that looked destined to lose by two scores when Harper tried to catch a punt at his own 35-yard line but let it bounce off his fingertips. Even though Nate Ebner won the wrestling match at the bottom of the human pile, Shaq Barrett was awarded possession in New England territory, trailing by 14 with 14:16 left in the game. Denver scored four plays later, and it was officially a ballgame.
Obviously, it's impossible to play out the timeline of how the game would have gone after that costly mistake. Yet it was a fundamental play that Harper needs to be made in that situation, and it showed just how much the Patriots miss Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
Jabaal Sheard & Chandler Jones
The defense may have fallen apart in overtime, but an incredible effort from both Sheard and Jones helped the Patriots open up that 14-0 lead in the first half.
Sheard overpowered right tackle Michael Schofeld and charged his way toward Osweiler, reaching up and getting his hand on the pass as the quarterback delivered the pass. The ball deflected straight up in the air, and Chandler Jones sized it up before making a leaping grab despite being sandwiched between two orange jerseys.
Three plays later, Scott Chandler was catching a touchdown and the Pats took a 14-0 lead, thanks to the work of Sheard and Jones.
Unfortunately for Logan Ryan, the replay of Andre Caldwell catching the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes of regulation is likely how his night will largely be remembered. But the cornerback was having quite the night in making Demaryius Thomas look like just another guy for almost the entire night.
Thomas, who entered the night with 875 receiving yards and who has averaged 1,500 yards over per season over the last three years, finished the night with just one catch for 36 yards ... on 13 targets. Ryan spent most of the night in tight coverage on Thomas, and Ryan's relentless fights for the ball seemed to take Thomas out of the game.
It wasn't a perfect night for Ryan, but mostly, it was an impressive one.
OK, so when the Broncos took a three-point lead with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter and with Gronkowski in the X-ray room, you didn't really think the Patriots stood a chance to mount a comeback, did you?
If you said yes, then you're either crazy or lying ... or you've seen enough from Tom Brady to always believe there's a chance. And of course, there was.
Scott Chandler, deep over the middle, 22 yards. Chandler, again, 10 yards. A Denver injury and some timeout confusion led to 16 seconds ticking off the clock before the next snap, which led to a defensive holding penalty on Chris Harris.
With one real chance to get into field-goal range, Brady fired to the left sideline, where Brandon LaFell made the catch and got out of bounds at the Denver 29-yard line.
Gostkowski came on and drilled the 47-yard field goal, his second stones kick in the past three weeks. But credit goes to the quarterback for making it work all night (23/42, 280 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT) with a group of wide receivers that included zero players on the Week 1 active roster.
As previously mentioned, Stephen Gostkowski showed he has ice water in his veins for the second time in the past three weeks. This one was every bit as pressure-packed as the game-winner against the Giants two weeks ago, and certainly the snowy, cold conditions made this one particularly difficult.
Yet Gostkowski, as always, made it looked easy, keeping the 47-yarder true and keeping the Patriots alive, if only for a brief while.
Gostkowski's now 24-for-25 on the season, his only miss coming last week on a 54-yard attempt.
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