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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Hits keep on coming, are those good times going?

DENVER -- You can spin this any way you like. You can focus on the fact that the New England Patriots didn't fold and had enough gumption to wipe the premature grin off the mugs of a Broncos team that was in the midst of pummeling their opponent, 21-3, then almost forgot to close the deal.

Or you can take a good, hard look at the state of the reigning Super Bowl champions and recognize there are only so many hits you can absorb before you stagger to the turf and can't pull yourself back up. The Patriots' injury list continues to border on the absurd, as running back Corey Dillon was unable to go yesterday. He joined a litany of big names reduced to spectator status, among them Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, and Kevin Faulk. Cornerback Randall Gay made the trip and made a cameo appearance. Willie McGinest, one of the toughest guys ever to suit up for New England, played with a broken hand or an injured finger, depending on which injury report you believe.

The Patriots long have prided themselves on their depth and interchangeable parts, but their roster is depleted to the point where a smart coach such as Mike Shanahan and a bunch of veterans like these 5-1 Broncos know exactly where to strike.

''We knew where to attack," confirmed Denver defensive end Trevor Pryce. ''The [quarterback pressure] was planned. We were going at those two young guys [Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins]. They knew it. The guard [Mankins], he couldn't deal. But give the tackle [Kaczur] credit. He's not bad."

Nice props for the rookie from Brandford, Ontario, but he's no Matt Light, any more than Duane Starks is Gay or Poole, which is why the Broncos targeted him, too. Starks, who once started for the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, a team that gave up the fewest points in NFL history, was scorched for two long passes that directly led to an early 14-3 Broncos lead. Starks was burned on a 72-yard Jake Plummer connection to Rod Smith to open the second quarter (that led to a Denver's first touchdown), then, on the Broncos' next possession, was torched again on a 55-yard Plummer strike to Ashley Lelie that set up a 6-yard touchdown reception to Smith.

It's no secret Starks is one of the weak links of a beleaguered secondary. The Falcons threw at him last week, and the Chargers threw at him the week before.

''We know it's coming," said subdued Patriots safety Eugene Wilson. ''So we've got to be ready for it better. They beat us on those man coverage plays, that's all. We can't let that happen."

Asked if he felt Starks's pain, Wilson answered softly, ''Yeah."

So where do the Patriots stand after this 28-20 loss, after six grueling games and a bye week on deck? They are 3-3 and their roster is beginning to resemble a skeleton crew whose members have gone on strike.

''I'd be a lot more worried if it was the second-to-last game of the season and we were a game under .500," said defensive end Ty Warren. ''We've got 10 more games."

The Patriots had taken a united stand against acknowledging the avalanche of injuries that have clouded their future, even going so far as to publicly chastise Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer for having the audacity to suggest that missing personnel was the reason they aren't as dominant.

But that facade is getting harder and harder to perpetuate.

''It's noticeable," said Warren. ''I'm not going to say [we don't miss those guys], because I'd be lying. But you got to carry on with what you've got."

To do so, they'd best forget the beating they absorbed in the first half yesterday. Even Tom Brady, so often the calming influence, was not immune. When you are under the kind of pressure Brady was all afternoon, you tend to look like most other NFL quarterbacks in those situations: hurried, harried, and far less effective than what we've come to expect from the face of the Patriots franchise.

Brady is no quitter -- see his 49-yard third-quarter connection to Tim Dwight with a bevy of big Broncos buzzing around him that led to Adam Vinatieri's 38-yard field goal -- but he is made of flesh and bones that are fully capable of being twisted and broken. If you looking for a silver lining in the wake of Denver's thrashing of the Patriots, it could well be this: Brady left the Mile High City under his own power.

''How that guy isn't the MVP year in and year out is beyond me," lauded Pryce. ''We were after him, but he still almost beat us. I don't think people realize how good he is until they watch him on professional film."

If I had a to-do list during my bye week, I'd make sure I emphasized how imperative it is to protect the guy wearing No. 12. Opponents will keep trying to exploit that left side, and New England better be ready. Mankins was so frustrated yesterday, he drew a dead ball personal foul for blatantly punching linebacker Ebenezer Ekuban in an unmentionable spot in the waning seconds of the first half.

Just what the Patriots needed. Another key player forced to the sideline.

Amid all the gloom that enveloped the Patriots locker room late yesterday, there was this optimistic scenario to consider. New England is still a card-carrying member of the hapless AFC East, which means in spite of its troubles, it remains the favorite to win the division.

If the Patriots can regain the services of some of their key personnel (it's believed Gay, Seymour, and Poole all will be ready to go when they suit up against Buffalo Oct. 30) and develop some sense of continuity, they are still a team that can inflict damage come playoff time.

You can hope that Tedy Bruschi will be able resume his career with the same verve, passion, and ability that cemented his status as a vital cog in the defense. Just remember the last time the linebacker hit anyone when it actually counted was Feb. 6, 2005, in Super Bowl XXXIX. Bruschi may be walking through that door next week, but Harrison isn't walking through with him. Nor, incidentally, is Ty Law, Joe Andruzzi, or Ted Johnson.

Those days are over, and those guys are gone -- for good.

The question is whether the swagger and the big-play capabilities that made New England the envy of the NFL has gone with them.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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