In New England's pair of season opening wins over the Bills and the Jets the team was able to cover up a passing game that's still a work in progress with a superb rushing attack. Corey Dillon (36 for 153) and Laurence Maroney (33 for 151) split the ground work almost evenly in the first two weeks to help the Patriots earn a spot atop the AFC East, totaling 330 yards (4.1 average) as team for one of the best early season rushing attacks in the NFL.
But in Sunday night's disappointing 17-7 loss to the Broncos in front of a national TV audience at Gillette Stadium, what had been an impressive rushing attack came to a grounding halt. Dillon carried the ball just five times for 16 yards before leaving with an arm injury and never returning. Maroney logged 12 rushes for a dismal 18 yards (1.5 avg.). All told the Patriots notched just 50 yards on 21 carries against an aggressive and sure tackling Broncos front that came into the game focused on taking away New England's rushing attack and making Brady and his new-look passing attack prove itself.
The Broncos were successful in their approach, and while Brady put up 320 yards on 31-of-55 passing, the bulk of the damage came in the fourth quarter with Denver up 17 and trying to run out the clock. The lack of rushing attack for the Patriots put the pressure on a passing game that simply isn't ready to carry the load, or even its fair share, at this point in the season and the disappointing ground gains came as a surprise to the guys in the offensive huddle. While the passing attack is a mix of new faces trying to gel, New England thought the ground attack was something that could be counted on consistently.
"I'm surprised any time we can't get our running game going," fullback Heath Evans said after the loss. "That's not to take away from their defense. But that's the one thing that we thought was a for sure, you know? While we were still getting into our groove (offensively) we thought...heck, we still know we can get that going."
The Patriots will likely have to once again get the running ways going if the team has any chance to hang with the undefeated Bengals this Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati. There is little chance New England's fledgling passing attack can compete with Carson Palmer and maybe the deepest receiving corps in the league. To hang with Cincinnati the Patriots will have to play solid defense, but they'll also need to put together a balanced offense that once again includes rushing success.
"We didn't make any plays on offense and we know we can't do that if we are going to get wins in this league," tight end Daniel Graham said after the first loss of the season, the team's third straight against Denver. "It was frustrating (Sunday) not being able to move the ball and do what we do. We have to get back to the drawing board and see where we messed up and get better. We can't play like that if we want to get some wins."
That's especially true against top AFC competition like the Broncos, and now the Bengals. Gone are the days when Brady can use his own undeniable will to carry the New England offense through the air. The '06 Patriots showed through the first two weeks that in order to compete against even lower level teams like the Jets and the Bills, they need to run the ball. If they can't it's going to be a long year and could be an exceptionally long Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
--QB Tom Brady tied a career-high with 55 attempts in the loss to the Broncos. He finished the game completing 31 passes for 320 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, although a bulk of the production came in the fourth quarter with Denver leading 17-0 and looking to simply run out the clock.
--RB Corey Dillon left Sunday's loss with a first-half arm injuring and did not return. Dillon finished with just five carries for 16 yards and is tied with rookie Laurence Maroney for the team's rushing lead with 169 yards on 41 carries through three games.
--TE Benjamin Watson leads the Patriots in receptions with 12 catches for 155 yards on the season. Watson had five receptions for 54 yards in the loss to Denver.
--WR Troy Brown is the only other Patriot with double-digit receptions. The 14-year veteran has 10 grabs for 110 yards in three games including one touchdown.
--WR Doug Gabriel recorded his first catch as a Patriot with an 18-yard grab in the fourth quarter of the loss to Denver. Gabriel finished tied for a team-high with five catches for 65 yards and also recorded his first New England touchdown on an 8-yard catch that was team's only score of the night.
--LB Junior Seau paced the New England defense with 13 tackles in the loss to Denver, although only two were of the solo variety. The first-year Patriot now has 19 tackles in three weeks of action.
--DE Richard Seymour continued to be active against Denver, recording seven tackles and three passes defensed.
--DE Ty Warren leads the New England defense through three games with 30 total tackles. He seven solo tackles, two quarterback hits and one pass defensed against Denver.
--PK Stephen Gostkowski had his second field goal attempt blocked in as many weeks when Broncos edge rusher Domonique Foxworth deflected his 37-yard attempt. The rookie fourth-round pick had a 29 yarder blocked in a Week 2 win over the Jets and has just two successful field goals in his first three career games.
--FS Eugene Wilson left Sunday's loss with a second-half leg injury. Wilson's replacement, second year player James Sanders, played a key role in allowing Javon Walker's 83-yard fourth quarter score.