DENVER -- The Denver Broncos have a locker room full of players with Super Bowl rings -- won in Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers to close the book on the 2015 season -- and here they are, less than two seasons later, wondering how the fall has come so hard, so quickly.
"I don't know, man, it's just sad. It's just real sad," said Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe. "It's sad we went from a championship-caliber team to a team that stinks and nobody respects us."
Said Broncos coach Vance Joseph: "I'll say this: When you lose like this, it's on all of us. It's a staff we chose and that we feel great about ... but I would say it's on all of us."
The Broncos lost their fifth consecutive game Sunday night -- 41-16 to the New England Patriots -- their sixth loss in the past seven games. When they defeated the Oakland Raiders, 16-10, on Oct. 1, they were 3-1 and talking about controlling the division race and getting back to the AFC title game.
Now, they are in last place in the AFC West with six double-digit losses -- the past two being a 28-point loss to the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago and Sunday's 25-point meltdown against the Patriots, who seemed to treat the Broncos as a warm-up for something more important. New England, with its five Super Bowl wins under Bill Belichick, including last season's title, provided a stark reminder of just how far the Broncos have fallen.
Even Denver's resident optimist, linebacker Von Miller, was at a loss as he tried to sift through the pieces Sunday night.
"It's still a good football team, but the record and the way we're playing right now is not a clear indicator of that," Miller said. "We've got a good football team in us, but what we put out there [Sunday] is a bad football team. What we put out there last week is a bad football team."
The rub is the Broncos say they prepare well -- "preparation is the last issue ... we're doing everything we possibly can," Wolfe said. They say they have good veteran leaders, that the coaching staff has put them in good position for the most part, and that they know what it takes to turn things around. Yet the Broncos have played six of the past seven games as if they have no veteran leadership to get them through the rough spots, as if they are wildly unprepared and as if they don't know what winning feels or looks like.
That is the gap they have to bridge if they are going to salvage anything from what remains of their season.
"I don't know. I don't know what the answer is," Wolfe said. "I'm at a loss. ... It's not easy to come to work when you're losing. ... It's not like no one is trying. We are playing hard. We are not giving up."
Joseph and his staff are under the microscope at the moment, especially given that Joseph has two first-time coordinators -- Joe Woods on defense and Brock Olivo on special teams. The defense has spent much of the season as the league's No. 1 unit overall and was No. 1 against the run early in the season. But opposing offenses keep completing passes to running backs and tight ends week after week as the Broncos have lost the past two games by a combined 53 points.
Not all of those points are on the defense's plate, but the Patriots scored on seven consecutive possessions Sunday night as Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes and was sacked just once. And the Eagles' Carson Wentz was largely undisturbed as he threw four touchdown passes the previous game.
The Denver special teams will have to lift themselves plenty just to get to say things aren't going well, because the group fell below that bar quite some time ago. Sunday night, they were a mess, with mistakes adding up to 24 Patriots points.
All this follows the Broncos' changing quarterbacks after being shut out for the first time in a quarter century.
The bottom line is that what they've been in recent years doesn't matter any longer, and what they'll be this season is still seven games away from being official, so there is only the here and now.
"I'm just going to have to wake up [Monday] and do it all over again and try to get a win," Wolfe said. "We've just got to try to get a win. That's all we can worry about right now is try to get a win, we have to get a win, because nothing's going to change if we don't get one."