FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — When the New England Patriots last visited Denver, they brought along a perfect record and talk of a second undefeated season.
They left with their first loss and the start of a streak in which they won just twice in their final six games — a streak that cost them their chance to host the AFC championship this weekend.
“Obviously, we were all disappointed with the way that game played itself out,” special teamer Matt Slater said this week as he prepared for the rematch of the Nov. 29 game that Denver won 30-24 in overtime. “It’s no mystery we had a rough stretch there for a couple of weeks, where we weren’t performing up to the level that we’re used to. We’re thankful for another opportunity to go into that hostile environment and contribute.”
New England earned its fourth Super Bowl championship last year, but the victory tour was tainted by another round of cheating allegations and the possible suspension of quarterback Tom Brady in the scandal that came to be known as “Deflategate.” When Brady’s suspension was overturned on the eve of the 2015 opener, thePatriots played like they were on a mission to teach the rest of the league a lesson — winning their first 10 games heading into the Thanksgiving weekend matchup with the Broncos.
With No. 1 quarterback Peyton Manning injured, New England opened a 21-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. But backup Brock Osweiler led the Broncos to three straight scores before Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski tied it in the final seconds to send the game into overtime.
The Patriots went backward on the opening drive of OT, then Denver won it on C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard touchdown run. Also troubling for New England was a knee injury that knocked Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the game (but only kept him out for one week).
“I think we took away a lot of confidence from that game, when we beat them,” Broncos offensive lineman Ryan Harris said this week. “No doubt, (they are) looking to get some revenge.”
With Gronkowski out for the next week and Julian Edelman on the sideline for the last seven weeks of the regular season (and much of their offensive line shuffling to accommodate the injuries there), the Patriots lost four of their last six games. The uncharacteristically poor finish left them at 12-4 — good enough for a 12th AFC East title in 13 seasons but tied with the Broncos in the race for home-field advantage through the playoffs.
Denver took the No. 1 seed by virtue of its victory over New England; when the Broncos beat Pittsburgh in the divisional round last weekend, that meant the AFC championship game would be played at Mile High Stadium.
“The game is in Denver, so we’re going to show up and play it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
The loss at Denver exposed one of the few remaining gaps in Brady’s resume. The three-time Super Bowl MVP is only 6-8 in his career against the Broncos, and 2-6 in Denver — perhaps the biggest reason the regular-season loss was so costly.
Brady seemed surprised when told of that record this week, but he said he looked forward to the opportunity to improve it. Noting that a lot of teams have bad records against the Broncos, who have won their division five straight years and reached the Super Bowl in 2013, Brady said that the elevation and home crowd help boost what is already a strong team.
“The level of competition and the quality of their players and coaches is what makes it a great team and a great organization,” Brady said, echoing terms that are often said about the Patriots. “They’ve been that way for a long time. So, they have a great tradition there and we’ve played a lot of good Bronco teams.
“Beat them a couple times, but they’ve beat us most of the time,” he said. “So I’d like to get to that No. 3 in the win column this weekend.”
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press