ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The fans already had exited the stadium, and in a quiet locker room Dec. 18, Broncos players were trying to make sense of the end of their six-game winning streak.
The Patriots had come to town and left with a convincing 41-23 victory, a performance in which Denver coach John Fox surmised his team "hung with them physically" but not mentally, awash in turnovers and missed assignments.
Meanwhile, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey would say New England "showed everybody what they're all about."
So, as the two teams prepare for a rematch less than a month later in Foxborough, Mass., in an AFC divisional playoff game Saturday night, it remains an open question whether the visiting Broncos will give Tom Brady and Co. the best they have to offer.
To do so, many things will have to change.
1. Don't give New England extra chances: The beginning of the first meeting couldn't have been scripted any better for Denver.
The club had scored only six times in 49 first-half possessions with Tim Tebow at quarterback coming into the game but put together drives of nine plays, 80 yards (TD), four plays, 82 yards (TD) and 10 plays, 63 yards (FG) to start with a 16-7 advantage.
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But the momentum stopped cold.
New England scored, followed by three Denver giveaways: a Lance Ball fumble, a Tebow fumble and a muffed punt on the penultimate play of the half. New England turned its deficit into a 27-16 edge, then put the game out of reach with a long scoring drive in the third quarter.
"We pretty much gave them the opportunity to win the game," punter Britton Colquitt said.
2. Keep up the heat with the running game: Lost in the 18-point margin of defeat is that the Broncos opened the game with 167 rushing yards in the first quarter, their highest output in a single period since at least 1992.
New England was forced to abandon its 4-3 to a 3-4 front to, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick put it, "change our spacing" to deal with the shifts, motions and formations that were killing his defense. Denver finished with only 175 total net yards during the final three quarters.
But another alteration was perhaps equally significant.
"I think I had a big [part] in that because at the beginning of the game, I was in there, but then I tweaked my hammy and I was out," said running back Willis McGahee, who tied for the league lead with seven 100-yard games. "It was a difference-maker for us."
McGahee exited with seven carries for 70 yards, including a 29-yard TD run. The Broncos would wind up with 252 rushing yards in the loss, which broke a streak of 16 consecutive victories when the franchise ran for at least that many yards.
The Broncos' three turnovers in their own territory were also a big factor. They led to 13 New England points and, as Tebow put it, started the offense "pressing" and in more of a passing mode.
A 4-of-12 conversion rate on third and fourth downs didn't help, either.
3. Don't leave the door open for easy chances: Denver mixed up its pressure packages, but communication errors were huge.
"If you watch that film, there's a lot of big catches and guys wide open with nobody defending them," safety Quinton Carter said.
The biggest beneficiary was tight end Aaron Hernandez, who, working against a linebacker or Carter, a first-year safety, had nine catches on 11 targets for 129 yards -- including a 43-yard catch-and-run.
Containing the YAC has been a huge point of emphasis for the rematch. It worked well against Rob Gronkowski (league-high 17 TDs) and Wes Welker (NFL-best 122 receptions). Those two combined for eight catches for 94 yards.
But Hernandez, Chad Ochocinco (33-yard TD on a busted play) and New England's ground game going against Denver's nickel produced less-than-stellar results.
"We made mistakes," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "They exposed our mistakes."
4. Don't fall into Brady's trap: Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil was able to get a clean shot on Brady for one of two sacks. But the future Hall of Famer never got out of his comfort zone, despite Denver's varied plan of attack.
"We've got to get more pressure on Brady somehow, some way, and affect him more," Allen said. "We hit him a couple times in the pocket, but we really didn't affect him enough."
Brady finished 23 of 34 for 320 yards with two TDs and zero interceptions, dissecting Denver's defense and deftly changing calls at the line of scrimmage.
"You've just got to play your style of football," linebacker Von Miller said. "When he gets up there, he gets a lot of guys nervous. That's why all the assignments are voided right there. But if you just stick to the game plan, you'll be all right. ... You can't overthink things. You've just got to play."
That's easier said than done when Brady has a penchant for checking into the right call to beat the coverage Allen dials up.
If pressure comes from one side, Brady will calmly screen it to the other.
"He knows where he's going with the deal," defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley said. "So it's crucial for us to get pressure, off the edge and especially in his face, to try and disrupt his vision a little bit and see what we can do."
5. Grow up: The first meeting was Denver's initial game without strong safety Brian Dawkins on the back end of the defense. That left two rookies, Carter and Rahim Moore, at safety, and a third first-year player, nickel cornerback Chris Harris, as part of a frequently used nickel package.
It helped explain why Denver had so many assignment errors.
"It was a big game," cornerback Andre Goodman said. "We were coming off a six-game winning streak and it was Tom Brady and the Patriots vs. Tim Tebow and the Broncos and everybody's watching. A lot of times, that leads to pressing. 'I don't want to be the guy to make the mistake.'"
Moore since has been benched. Rafael Bush is part of a three-safety dime package Denver used frequently in the wild-card round vs. Pittsburgh. The team inserted veteran David Bruton to help shore up communication in Dawkins' spot.
Dawkins almost certainly will be out again Saturday night; he's still not sufficiently healed from a neck injury.
"We're definitely better prepared," Goodman said. "Game reps do it for any player, especially young ones. And I think after getting this last playoff game out of the way, there won't be any more shock. I think they'll be ready for the moment."
6. Carbon copy last week in game's "third phase": In the Pittsburgh game, Matt Prater not only kicked three field goals, but all six of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Colquitt had four punts -- one was downed and three were fair catches.
That's how you do it in the playoffs.
But in the first meeting with New England, not only did since-departed returner Quan Cosby inexplicably try to field a punt with under 10 seconds left, bobbling the ball and giving New England possession for a field goal, but a bad snap prevented an extra-point try.
"You look at a few teams in the league, like Green Bay; if they didn't have special teams, they could still win the game because of their offense," Colquitt said. "We're one of those groups that needs every unit to play well."