5 takeaways from the Patriots’ question-prompting loss to the Broncos

These aren’t the well-prepared, able-to-overcome Patriots of yesteryear.

Julian Edelman throws a fourth quarter pass that he completed to quarterback Cam Newton.
Julian Edelman throws a fourth quarter pass that he completed to quarterback Cam Newton. –Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ faith-dampening, question-prompting, cold shower of a loss to the Denver Broncos, who left Gillette Stadium as 18-12 winners on Sunday afternoon…

A sobering setback

The Patriots’ performance Sunday came with a built-in excuse, considering the havoc that COVID-19 wreaked on the organization over the time that was supposed to be spent preparing for the contest. Positive tests and reports of player discomfort dominated the 13-day stretch, right up until three more from the New England roster were relegated to the reserve list Saturday afternoon. That may well explain some of what happened in losing to Denver. 

But that should be no solace for Patriots’ fans seeking reassurance after a such a disappointing show — because there are no indications that the problems created by the pandemic will be stabilizing anytime soon. It’s a strong possibility that the Pats will need to play again after having little to no practice. Sunday doesn’t do much to suggest they’re good enough talent-wise to overcome that.

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And if the way they played wasn’t a byproduct of the circumstances, then the game may have revealed an even more troubling reality as it relates to the team’s level of talent.

Either way, Sunday was sobering.

It was sobering for those who saw losses at Seattle and Kansas City as evidence that New England was encouraging defeats. It was sobering for those who thought that having Cam Newton at quarterback kept the Patriots in the conversation of the elite. It was sobering for those who thought the AFC East was still the Pats’ division to lose. 

It was as sobering as the standings this morning, which show the Patriots at 2-3 — and not just below .500, but with the climb growing steeper in a conference where six teams entered this week at 4-1 or better. Even with the addition of a seventh playoff team this season, New England doesn’t project to have much margin for error in its quest to secure a wild-card spot at season’s end. 

Games against mediocre teams like the Broncos — who might not even deserve that description — are the type the Pats can’t afford to lose. They’re the type they haven’t lost very often over the past 20 years. 

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But Sunday was the season’s first open-handed slap reminding New England of the sobering reality that these aren’t the well-prepared, able-to-overcome Patriots of yesteryear.

Too many turnovers … again

At the start of play Sunday, only seven teams in the NFL had committed more turnovers than the Patriots — and, of those teams, the Broncos were the only club that hadn’t played more games than the Pats. Sunday at Gillette Stadium they added three more to their total, while being fortunate to recover a couple of their own fumbles, as well, and in the process further affirmed that New England and its new quarterback have problems protecting the football.

Newton was intercepted twice by the Broncos. Both were deflected on the way to the intended receiver, though they nevertheless brought his total to four for the season by his 106th throw. That’s a 3.77 percent interception rate; only Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, and Nick Mullens entered Week 6 with a higher number across the NFL. 

Ryan Izzo’s fumble compounded Newton’s picks, and with that the Patriots reached 10 turnovers in their fifth game of the season. In Brady’s final season in Foxborough, the team’s 10th turnover came in Week 9. A year earlier, it came in the sixth game of the season — though the club committed only eight giveaways over the final 10 tilts. 

The only time in Brady’s tenure that the Pats hit double-figures in turnovers before the end of their fifth contest was in 2002. That was also the last time the Patriots had a losing record in October or later.

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And that’s not a coincidence.

Is Cam’s arm OK?

As he returned from the case of COVID-19 that cost him a chance to play against Kansas City, Newton’s general health was a focal point. At the start of the year, observers were focused on the health of his foot, coming off the Lisfranc surgery he had last December. There were also lingering questions about his throwing shoulder, in which a loss of motion had required him to undergo surgery twice between 2017 and early 2019.

Sunday’s effort may amplify those shoulder concerns.

Newton looked fine from a conditioning and running perspective, evidenced in the way his legs enabled the Pats to pull it close in the fourth quarter. But when New England went to the passing game there were red flags waving all afternoon — even with his two interceptions excepted.

Newton completed 68 percent of his throws (17 of 25), but eight of his completions were to James White and another was to fellow running back Damien Harris. On the 15 throws to other guys, the quarterback repeatedly had problems. 

In a best-case scenario, he was uncomfortable. At some times he was indecisive, at others he was caught staring down his target. The Broncos were effective getting hands in his face and bodies at his feet.

But the concern is that the predominant part of the reason he looked uncomfortable is because something’s not right with his arm. And there’s a variety of evidence to stoke such fears. 

For example, the Pats appeared resistant to push the ball through the air early, opening with eight runs in the first 11 plays, and the three throws all going underneath to White. Then, in the middle of the second quarter, on the offense’s first sustained drive, Newton forced Damiere Byrd to come back a ways to make a diving catch, then he badly underthrew Julian Edelman on the third down that ended the series.

Those throws, and others, lacked zip. At times, that might’ve been because he didn’t have an opportunity to step into his throw, but on the Pats’ last-ditch possession in the fourth quarter he did have a chance to stride into one as Byrd got a step on his defender up the left sideline. The receiver had separation, but Newton’s throw was well short, and never had a chance. N’Keal Harry didn’t have a chance, either, on the fourth down throw that Newton fired well wide with the Pats’ final play.

That one had the look of a quarterback who knew he needed to put some heat on it, but tried to summon more than his arm had in it, and sacrificed accuracy as a result.

It might also be telling that on their final possession, the Patriots twice entrusted the passing responsibilities to Edelman. There’s no shame in a trick play; Pats fans appreciate their power as much as anyone. But with the game on the line, and needing to put the ball in the air, a team needs to be able to trust its quarterback with the duty. 

Needing to string completions together on Sunday afternoon it looked like offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had as much trust in Kent State’s old quarterback as he did his own. If that’s an indication of the strength in Newton’s shoulder, the Patriots are in serious trouble.

Offense isn’t built to overcome

Not all of the need for deception is Newton’s fault. Even if his shoulder is healthy, the group around him is limited — and looking increasingly incapable of overcoming issues.

Sunday’s issues started up front. Three starters along the offensive line were inactive, and by the second series a third joined them on the sideline. At various points, all five spots on the line were occupied by guys playing out of position or playing their first meaningful, extended NFL snaps. That’s lethal for a team that predicates its attack on the running game.

Deficits and long yardage are killers, too. The Patriots mustered only a field goal in the first half Sunday, and their only first-quarter touchdown of the season came courtesy of Devin McCourty’s interception return at Seattle. They never led against the Broncos, just like they never led against the Chiefs. They’re putting a lot of pressure on themselves with that recipe, and the talent and style that defines them just doesn’t provide the ingredients to cook up a comeback.

They can’t even come back from mistakes on early downs, let alone scoring deficits early in games. A penalty, a sack, a negative run — those are drive destroyers for this team, considering how poorly they’ve converted on third downs when needing six yards or more. They were 0-for-4 Sunday, bringing them to 7-for-31 on the season in such situations. That’s 22.6 percent; when they can keep it to five yards or less, they’ve survived third down on 60 percent (18 of 30) of their tries.

Newton shoulders some of the blame, but so did his weapons. Edelman caught as many balls as he threw Sunday (two). Harry didn’t have a catch. Byrd is fine, and Isaiah Zuber is fast, but the tight ends remain a nonfactor and there’s nobody aside from Newton’s legs who prompts fear in an opposing defense right now.

Don’t give the defense a pass

On the surface it’s hard to be too critical of a defense that didn’t allow a touchdown. In today’s NFL, that’s a noteworthy feat. 

But don’t let the Patriots’ defense off the hook for their culpability in Sunday’s calamity.

Statistically, they held the Broncos to 3.6 yards per rush and quarterback Drew Lock finished with a 34.9 passer rating and 41.7 completion percentage — though the numbers don’t tell the story. The Pats also didn’t forced a punt or turnover until the fourth quarter, and Denver had two drives of 48 yards and two drives of 83 yards en route to scoring field goals on its first six possessions.

The biggest knock on Lock is his inability to throw deep (no surprise to those who saw the two late picks that kept the Pats in it), yet he was fearless in attacking the New England secondary. He hit on a long toss to set up points in the first quarter, then connected for a 35-yarder on third and 21 after halftime. 

That came at a point in the game where the Patriots needed their defense to turn the tide. They needed to stunt a drive and give their offense a chance to find its footing. After two downs, they had Denver where they wanted them. Instead, the Broncos moved the chains. They extended the drive. A stop there, and New England gets the ball back after five plays and about three minutes — rather than what became 15 plays, 83 yards, and nine minutes, seven seconds.

The Pats got away with allowing just a field goal, thanks in part to a Denver receiver dropping a would-be touchdown in his hands for the second of three times it occurred on the day. But swallowing up so much time while stretching their lead to 12 was a major win for the visitors. And it might also have been a factor in how head coach Bill Belichick felt about his unit. 

On the next series, Belichick declined a penalty that would have forced the Broncos to try again to convert on third down. With that decision, Belichick determined that letting the Broncos try a 54-yard field goal would be preferential to leaving his defense to try and stop third and 14 from their own 46. 

That the coach let Brandon McManus come onto the field in that spot says everything about the value of the stats posted by the Patriots’ defense on Sunday. 

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