DENVER -- If it were a fight, it would have been called after the Patriots were pounded mercilessly in the second quarter; if not by the referee, then certainly by the ringside doctor.
Maybe New England would have been disqualified after rookie guard Logan Mankins's below-the-belt blow on the last play of the first half.
Yet as the already undermanned Patriots continued to have players limp off the field yesterday, Denver never delivered the knockout blow and New England never threw in the towel.
In the end, however, the Broncos held off the Patriots' comeback to earn a 28-20 decision before a raucous-turned-silent-turned celebratory crowd of 76,571 at Invesco Field at Mile High.
After falling behind, 28-3, early in the second half, the Patriots scored the final 17 points, including two fourth-quarter touchdowns. But a Tom Brady-led comeback was not to be had on this afternoon, as the Patriots were forced to punt with three and a half minutes left and Denver ran out the clock.
''We never give up," running back Patrick Pass said. ''We may be down, but we're never out.
''But you can't spot a good team like that 21 points in the first half and we only have 3, especially at home. That's going to be extremely hard to overcome."
The Patriots' up-and-down year continued. For the third time this season, the defending Super Bowl champions failed to win consecutive games.
New England (3-3), which is off to its worst start since 2002, has a bye next week.
''At 3-3, you're an average team," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. ''When you play good enough to win one and you get down, 28-3, the next, you're going to lose those games. You can't say, 'Well, we rallied back.'
''We're an average football team."
The Patriots might be less of an average football team with all of their players in tow. Yesterday the team added running back Corey Dillon and receiver Troy Brown to the list of those who are seriously aching, as both missed their first game in a season fraught with injuries.
Vrabel's unit, which failed to force a turnover for the third straight game, was decidedly below average through the first half and first drive of the third quarter.
The Broncos big-played the Patriots at will, torching the secondary for long pass plays and ripping through the defensive line for long gains.
''We gave up big plays and that obviously hurt us," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ''We try to prevent that every week and we have to do a better job at it."
Denver had three second-quarter touchdown drives of at least 80 yards, including two marches of more than 90 yards. Each trek was highlighted by a long play, something that has been a problem for the Patriots throughout the season.
Cornerback Duane Starks found himself in the chase position on two huge pass plays that set up scores. About the only positive for Starks was he managed to drag down the receivers to prevent touchdowns.
Of course, that was only a momentary reprieve for the reeling Patriot defense, which gave up 432 yards.
Rod Smith (six catches, 123 yards) burned Starks for a 72-yard reception, and Ashley Lelie took his turn against the battered corner, beating him for a 55-yard grab in man-to-man coverage. Tatum Bell (13 carries, 114 yards) ripped off a 68-yard run through the middle of the defense to set up the third touchdown of the second quarter.
Ahead, 21-3, the Broncos took the second-half kickoff and promptly drove 74 yards in nine plays for another touchdown, and it appeared time for the Patriots to throw in the towel.
But Pass, already subbing as the second-team running back because of Kevin Faulk's injury, got the offense going as he got more touches because Dillon didn't play.
Pass had six receptions for 89 yards and 10 carries for 64 yards, and scored the Patriots first touchdown early in the fourth quarter on an 8-yard run.
''We started putting it together," Pass said. ''We made some mistakes in the first half that we knew we couldn't make in the second half if we wanted to win the game."
With the defense finally finding an answer to the Broncos, the Patriots pulled within 28-20 when David Givens made a leaping catch of a Brady throw in the back of the end zone for a score.
Needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion for a tie, Brady led the Patriots on the field with 5:02 remaining. Twice this season the Patriots have driven down the field to win games on last-minute field goals.
This time, Brady and the Patriots would not deliver.
A crucial drop by Givens in middle of the field on what should have been at least a 20-yard gain was the key play that began the drive's destruction.
Brady was then flagged for intentional grounding setting up a third and 20.
Deion Branch, who led the Patriots with seven catches for 87 yards, couldn't come up with a catch, after taking a hard hit by Al Wilson. Branch blacked out for a second before hitting the ground where the ball came loose for the incompletion.
''I should have caught that ball," Givens said. ''If I had caught that ball, the drive would have kept moving.
''It was one of those plays where you got to find the quarterback and find the ball. When I finally found the ball it was on me, but I should have made the play."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at email@example.com