DENVER (AP) Bailey Zappe had a feeling this would be the New England Patriots' night when he coughed up the football at his 5-yard line on his very first snap and his defense bailed him out by keeping the Denver Broncos out of the end zone.

“It kind of nullifies everything that happened,” Zappe said after helping the Patriots deliver a near-fatal blow to the Broncos' playoff hopes with a 26-23 victory Sunday night.

“You don’t want to turn the ball over, but if they don’t get any points, that’s a win, of course,” Zappe said. “To have a defense like we do, I mean it’s phenomenal. It’s just awesome to see those guys play. They’re one of the best - if not the best - defenses in the entire league.”

Chad Ryand's career-long 56-yard field goal with two seconds left was the difference for the Patriots (4-11), who scored a pair of touchdowns in a six-second span of the third quarter, then fended off a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Broncos (7-8).

Ryland's kick capped a seven-play, 44-yard drive that began with 58 seconds left after the Broncos went three-and-out. Denver had tied it up with a pair of long TD drives and 2-point conversions on its previous two possessions.

Ryland came in as the worst full-time starting kicker in the league in field-goal percentage at 65% (13 of 20), and the rookie missed from 47 yards late in the first half on Sunday night. He also missed an extra point in the third quarter.

The Broncos were 7 1/2-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, making the Patriots the fourth underdog to win at Empower Field at Mile High in coach Sean Payton's first season. This latest upset left the Broncos with just a 6% chance of ending their eight-year playoff drought, according to the NFL's calculations.

“Our margin for error right now isn't what it needs to be,” Payton said.

Bill Belichick improved to 11-10 against the Broncos during his 24-year tenure in New England, denying Denver the status as the only opponent with a winning record against him during his time with the Patriots.

After falling behind 23-7, the Broncos tied it when Russell Wilson threw touchdown passes to rookie tight end Lucas Krull and wideout Brandon Johnson and converted 2-point passes to Johnson and Javonte Williams.

“We believed we would win the game,” Wilson said. “... It didn't go our way.”

The Broncos had a shot at completing the comeback when they got the ball at their 39 with 1:42 remaining but they went three-and-out, giving the ball back to New England with just under a minute remaining.

Zappe gave New England its first lead with a 15-yard touchdown toss to Ezekiel Elliott, but Ryland's missed PAT left the Patriots up 9-7.

Elliott hurdled nickel back Ja'Quan McMillian on his way into the end zone.

“A lot of DBs, when they see a big guy in the open field they're going to try to go low," Elliott said. “I had a feeling they were going to go low and I knew if I got over this guy I had a good chance to score.”

Zappe escaped pressure and found Mike Gesicki with an 11-yard touchdown throw to make it 16-7, and when Marvin Mims Jr. fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the 5-yard line. Cody Davis scooped it up at the 1 and rolled across the goal line.

The Broncos' already pedestrian offense suffered a big loss when wide receiver Courtland Sutton went out in the first half with a concussion, and all Denver managed through 3 1/2 quarters was Williams' 3-yard TD run to open the scoring. Denver gained just 15 yards and had one first down in the third quarter.

The Broncos hold faint hopes of becoming just the fourth team since the merger to make the playoffs after losing five of their first six games, but they'll need plenty of help to get there now.

Denver's defense has carried the team all season, leading the Broncos back from a 1-5 start and into playoff contention, but Payton's offense hasn't done its part, something that was never in clearer focus than in the game's opening sequence.

On the game's first snap, D.J. Jones strip-sacked Zappe and recovered the loose ball himself at the New England 5-yard line.

The Broncos came away from Jones' trifecta empty-handed, however, when Williams ran three times into the teeth of the league's best run defense, including on fourth-and-goal from the 2 when Christian Barmore stopped him a yard shy of the goal line.

The Broncos started their next drive at the Patriots 46 but went three-and-out before finally exploiting a short field when Mims' 52-yard punt return set them up on the New England 25-yard line for the drive in which Williams ran it in from the 3.


The Broncos sorely missed Sutton, who has 10 touchdown catches this season. He went out in the first quarter and was diagnosed with a concussion.


Patriots: Visit Buffalo next Sunday.

Broncos: Host the Los Angeles Chargers next Sunday.



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