DENVER -- Whenever the final words are written or spoken about the Denver Broncos' 2017 season, it’s almost a given it will simply be the football year when the Broncos couldn't get out of their own way.
Because, as the vintage thought goes, they have seen the enemy and it is them.
Yes, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots cashed in on virtually any and all charitable football contributions they were given by the Broncos in a 41-16 Patriots win at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, but every attempt the Broncos had to make it a game was stamped out by just one of the parties involved.
The Broncos themselves, for their fifth consecutive loss, their sixth loss in the past seven games, as they sit 3-6 with plenty of self-professed training-camp promise unfulfilled.
"All three phases again," said Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. " ... We talked you have to win the pre-snap battle and we didn't do that. And you can't beat yourself, when you beat yourself it looks that way."
For a week leading up to Sunday night's affair, Broncos coach Vance Joseph had spoken of the necessity for Denver to create a "fair" game. As in a game in which it didn't take a week's worth of preparation and flush it with a few minutes of shoddy work when it gift wraps the ball as well as any and all momentum to the team on the opposite sideline.
Clean up the details, fine-tune the fine points; that's all it would take to make a change, Joseph and the Broncos' players said. And then the Broncos constructed another loss, with their own hands, in the opening minutes of another game that got away.
Rookie Isaiah McKenzie, who has seen his first NFL season turn into a bit of a recurring nightmare of dropped punts, muffed the Patriots' first punt of the game, one that came after a stadium was rocking following a three-and-out forced by the Broncos' defense. New England recovered the ball at the Broncos' 24-yard line and had a 7-0 lead two plays later.
The Broncos answered with a field goal drive and then surrendered a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Dion Lewis. And the defending Super Bowl champs, a team that eats big-game pressure like Tic Tacs and has made taking a crowd out of a game almost a given, had a 14-0 lead with 8 minutes, 24 seconds left in the first quarter thanks to the Broncos' special teams.
"We have to look at personnel, scheme, all of it," Joseph said. "We can't fumble a punt return ... that's where it started.''
"It's Tom Brady, man, you can't spot him anything," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "You've got to be sound in all three phases and he's going to take advantage of our mistakes. ... We're just doing the same thing every week.''
Later, the Broncos had a punt blocked, had a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty, McKenzie almost dropped a kickoff and the Broncos had 12 men on the field to negate a Patriots' punt in the fourth quarter. The Patriots turned that second chance into a touchdown, too.
What happened in between, like the fleeting moments when the Broncos' offense had briefly piled up more yardage than the Patriots had, or that Brock Osweiler had thrown for more yardage than Brady, or that Emmanuel Sanders seemed to catch a pass in front of Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler any time Sanders wanted, didn’t matter much. The Broncos may have scrapped well enough at times to have some limited what-if fodder for the coming week, but the folks streaming to the exits in the fourth quarter couldn't bear to watch any longer as Brian Hoyer finished out behind center for the Patriots.
In the end, the Broncos have now limped across the sharp edge of their schedule. They went 0-4 in that stretch with their first shutout loss in a quarter century, an interception-filled defeat in Kansas City that got their quarterback benched, their worst loss since 2010 -- 51-23 to the Eagles -- and Sunday night’s gift certificate handed to the team that needed it least in the opening six minutes of a game.
Oh, and just for good measure in all of this, the New York Giants' only win this season? Another one with a bow on it, the Broncos handed out last month.
That is one substantial pile of football misery for the Broncos to sift through and it’s only getting bigger. And the Broncos can crunch all of the numbers, grind all of the game video, break it all down as much as they want, but they need only one thing to find the cause of it all.