DENVER -- Can Tedy Bruschi play cornerback?
If he can't, he wouldn't have been any help yesterday.
Can Tedy Bruschi play running back?
If he can't, he wouldn't have been any help yesterday when the guy who rushed for 100 yards a week ago, old Corey Dillon, was apparently so tired from the effort he had to take the day off to rest his bones.
Can Tedy Bruschi play offensive line?
If he can't, he wouldn't have been any help yesterday when Tom Brady learned for the first time what it once meant to be Drew Bledsoe, which is to say it's difficult to pass when you're upside down every other play.
Can Tedy Bruschi play defensive end?
If he can't, he wouldn't have been any help yesterday when Richard Seymour, arguably the best and most underpaid defensive end in pro football, was home nursing a knee he injured playing (excuse me?) fullback.
Can Tedy Bruschi play inside linebacker?
Hopefully, but not even that would have made any difference yesterday when the three-time Super Bowl champions were not merely beaten by the Denver Broncos, they were manhandled for the third time this season. They didn't merely beat the Patriots yesterday at Invesco Field at Mile High, they embarrassed them by running over them, throwing over them, and lording over them in the first half of what turned out to be a 28-20 New England loss that made one thing undeniable -- the guys who aren't in uniform may have had a bit more to do with the success of the past few years than some people around New England ever wanted to admit.
Yesterday, with Seymour, Bruschi, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Ted Johnson, and Tyrone Poole all missing from the defense that was so dominant this time a year ago, what the Patriots were left with was what has become the mantra around New England over the past year or two. ''In Bill we trust," many a radiohead has said time after time as the Patriots allowed more and more talent to flee and replaced it with less talented additions, and yesterday that's what they had left. They had Bill to trust, because too many of the people who actually win and lose the games were either long gone, in the infirmary, or not trustworthy.
''When you do things that aren't characteristic of you and you continue to do them they become characteristic," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said of his team's third bad beating of the young season. ''We give up 20 points or more every Sunday. We can't rely on Tom to bring us back every week. You got to get guys to do the right things. Be in the right places.
''If Tedy comes back, yeah, it would be an emotional lift because we need good players, but if you go out and lay down it doesn't matter if you've got Superman out there. This has been a roller coaster all season. Up and down every week. Keep doing that and we'll be 8-8 and out of the playoffs. That first half we got our butts kicked."
Belichick coached as well yesterday as he has a lot of other days. It wasn't how he and his staff were coaching that was the problem. It was whom they were coaching.
Anyone still believe Law wasn't worth the money after three weekends of watching Duane ''Somebody hose me down" Starks being lit up like a Roman candle all over the field?
Anyone still believe a 35-year-old linebacker who has been an edge rusher nearly all of his career such as Chad Brown can be asked to replace an inside linebacker as stout as the 250-pound Johnson? Anyone still think a young and inexperienced linebacker with nine games of starting experience in Kansas City such as Monty Beisel can step in for Bruschi and everything will remain the same? Not even the Patriots appeared to believe that anymore, finally switching Mike Vrabel inside yesterday, but not until the worst of the damage was done.
We are now more than a third of the way through the season and Dillon, who turns 31 next week, is averaging 54.8 yards rushing a game and was unavailable yesterday. Where was the young back who was supposed to step in if such an eventuality occurred? Remember Cedric Cobbs? He was cut this summer, two years after having been drafted as the future, which he turned out not to be. So who was there to run for Dillon while he rested from his work?
A fullback and a castoff.
So it went on a brilliant fall afternoon in Colorado, where everything was bright but the battered Patriots' immediate future.
Being 3-3 after six weeks, considering all the injuries they've suffered and the difficult nature of their opponents, is actually not bad. One shining light was the nature of their second-half comeback to make it close even though the Broncos contributed mightily to that by trying to sit on that 28-3 lead. But not even that show of character can erase the way those three losses came about because in each of those games (and in two of their victories as well) the Patriots' defense has been pushed around. Too often so has the left side of their offensive line, a place the Broncos attacked relentlessly because rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur are trying to hold the fort for departed Joe Andruzzi and injured Matt Light and, at times, not succeeding.
Losing is one thing. That happens to everyone but the '72 Dolphins. But being pushed all over the field is quite another matter, and that's what happened to the Patriots in Carolina, against San Diego, in Atlanta, and yesterday until, inexplicably, the Broncos stopped attacking early in the third quarter after taking what would prove to be that insurmountable 28-3 lead. It happened so thoroughly that in the second quarter Denver outgained New England, 247 yards to 78, and outscored it, 21-0.
''That takes the wind out of you," Colvin said. ''We let their offense do what it wanted to do. Giving up long runs. Giving up long passes [completions of 72 and 55 yards and an average gain of 15.4 yards per completion]. Each individual guy is taking a turn busting a play. Guys are not doing their job. People continue to talk about this guy's not there, that guy's not there. It doesn't matter if we don't play our techniques. I don't think one man can do a whole lot if guys continue to play the wrong gaps and blow coverages and not make tackles. Tedy is not a one-man defense."
Thankfully the bye week has come none too soon. It gives Belichick and new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini two weeks to try and regroup and reorganize and reorient a defense that is allowing 27.3 points per game. Thankfully they also will have two weeks to get some players healed. If you're an optimist, you can be thankful for a second-half schedule that is supposed to be softer and hence more manageable than these past six games, too.
Perhaps it will all be so. Perhaps Poole will return and morph into Law, thus allowing poor Starks to be put on the list Bruschi soon may come off of -- the physically unable to perform list. What else can you say about a guy who has given up about 200 passing yards the past three weeks all by his lonesome (which is usually where the guys he's supposed to cover end up)?
Perhaps Dillon will get healthy and run wild against the Buffalo Bills in two weeks and Seymour will return with his knee healed, and Bruschi will return and be what he once was, and the two rookie offensive linemen suddenly will not be rookies anymore and Brady again will be protected the way the British protect the crown jewels.
Perhaps the two new inside linebackers suddenly will understand all the intricacies of not only the Belichick scheme but also the almost weekly changes in rules and approach he insists upon making to fine-tune his grand plans, while also being able to more effectively take on the 300-plus-pound blockers who keep coming at them in ways they are not familiar or comfortable with.
Perhaps the front seven finally will begin to stop opposing running games that have piled up 752 yards in six weeks, an average of 125.3 yards per game and 4.2 per carry.
Perhaps the secondary that got riddled by the Falcons and riddled by the Broncos and is allowing an average of two touchdown passes every Sunday and 15.2 yards per completion won't be riddled by Peyton Manning Nov. 7 when the Colts bring their tortured history into Razor Blade Field hoping to avoid another in a long line of shavings.
Perhaps the Chiefs won't be so tough at Arrowhead Stadium as they once were and the Buccaneers will have been proven to be frauds by Dec. 17 even though they're 5-1 at the moment. Perhaps the other teams in the AFC East, the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins, will all be as soft as they now appear, so winning the AFC East won't be all that much to ask.
Maybe by Oct. 30 New England's defense will remember again how to force a turnover, too, something it hasn't done for a month unless you count the one in Pittsburgh, when Antwaan Randle El gave them the ball on a foolish lateral attempt.
After yesterday, that's what you have to hang your hat on. On ''perhaps," because one thing that's sure after what went on against the Steelers, the Chargers, the Michael Vick-less Falcons, and the Broncos is that it's going to take more than Tedy Bruschi to return the Patriots to the Super Bowl.