Lindsay H. Jones, USA TODAY Sports 9:52 p.m. EST January 14, 2014
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The final moments were the most painful for the Denver Broncos, as a botched punt return led to a game-winning field goal by the New England Patriots late in overtime of the teams' Week 12 meeting Nov. 24.
|Mike Adams of the Broncos Tracks|
Shane Vereen of the Patriots in an earlier contest
this year the Patriots won 34-31 in OT at New England
But there were plenty of other moments in that game, a 34-31 win by the Patriots, to which the Broncos will look for lessons as they prepare to host the Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.
They haven't forgotten the wacky first half in which they built a 24-0 lead after forcing three turnovers and stifling Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense. And they certainly haven't forgotten how quickly Brady turned the Broncos' seemingly insurmountable lead into a 31-24 deficit by midway through the fourth quarter.
"We just have to learn to put teams away and finish," Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.
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Finish, finish, finish — that will be the mantra at Denver's Dove Valley training facility, because it wasn't just the New England game in which the Broncos faltered after building a lead. It happened again Sunday, when Broncos surrendered 17 fourth-quarter points in their 24-17 divisional-round win against the San Diego Chargers.
"That was a hard lesson learned throughout the year. I thought we've had a couple of those this year. We faced a lot of adversity, and when you look at this week, you have to capitalize and make sure you minimize all mistakes throughout the game," wide receiver Eric Decker said. "We had a couple (against San Diego) — a couple myself. I think those things you have to take a hard look at and make sure you don't let that happen against a good team like New England."
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Decker was referring to several of his own miscues — when he tripped after breaking free on a punt return, when a pass from Peyton Manning bounced off his chest in the end zone and was intercepted just before halftime, and when he dropped a fourth-quarter onside kick. Those types of mistakes, which were embarrassing against Philip Rivers and the Chargers, would be fatal against Brady.
"We didn't finish the game, and we didn't come out with that same fire and that same intensity," safety Mike Adams said.
"We never went back to the sideline. We never settled down. We never said, 'OK, don't worry about it. It's Tom Brady. They're going to score. They're going to get theirs. They're going to make their plays. Let's go. Now, we've got to shut them up. We've got to shut them down a little bit.' And we didn't do that."
There are elements from that first game the Broncos would like to replicate. Defensive players said the first half of that game showed how well the Broncos' defense could play, even if Denver's defense and New England's offense are missing important players.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in that game. He is now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Denver cornerback Chris Harris, who sometimes covered Gronkowski, is also out after tearing his ACL against the Chargers. Von Miller, the Broncos' best defensive player, had two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble return for a touchdown in the first meeting, is also on injured reserve with a torn ACL.
It's unclear how the Broncos will fare without Harris, but they are 9-0 in games without Miller this season. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots have discovered a new identity as a power running team.
"Very different. I think he's probably the best tight end in the NFL and that's (Brady's) main target. That's why they're running the ball and they're doing a good job of it," Knighton said.