At least there are no more homecomings on the docket for the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning and Wes Welker both fell flat in theirs.
A month after Manning came unraveled in his return to Indianapolis, Welker had his worst game of the season at New England.
Returning to Gillette Stadium, where he'd spent the last six seasons as Tom Brady's top target, Welker caught just four passes for 31 yards and dropped two others.
By coach Jack Del Rio's math, Welker also was 50 percent responsible for the gaffe late in overtime that led to Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal that completed the Patriots' comeback from a 24-0 halftime deficit.
Set to return a punt with just more than 3 minutes left, Welker was too late in waving off his blockers. By the time Tony Carter heard him yelling, "Peter! Peter!" it was too late. The ball bounced off Carter's leg and Nate Ebner smothered it at the Broncos 13. Three plays later, the Patriots won 34-31.
"Certainly, Wes would say, 'Hey, I've got to be more emphatic getting the guy out of there,' and then Tony I'm sure would say, 'Hey, I've got to be more aware there,'" Del Rio said Monday.
Upon further reflection, Del Rio, the Broncos' interim head coach, decided to divvy up the blame even more, saying he and special teams coach Jeff Rodgers need to prepare the punt return teams better.
"I think both players involved tried to take some blame and I think as a coach that's looking over it all, I take some share of that blame. I think Jeff ... we all kind of feel like we can do this a little bit better. I think it's a learning opportunity for us," Del Rio said.
The Broncos (9-2) wasted a golden opportunity to build a comfortable lead for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Now, they have just a one-game lead over the Patriots heading into Sunday's game at division rival Kansas City (9-2).
The Patriots don't have any games left against teams with winning records — Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore, Buffalo. Things appear to get easier for the Broncos, too, after their trip to Arrowhead this weekend, as they finish up against Tennessee, San Diego, Houston and Oakland, all with losing records.
They could very well end up lamenting their flop at New England, where they matched the biggest collapse in team history. They also blew a 24-0 lead to the Raiders back in 1988.
Welker was in the game at the end because he has surer hands than the all-or-nothing Trindon Holliday, who had muffed a punt just before halftime.
Welker decided not to make a fair catch and backed away, waving off his teammates. Only, he didn't make the call fast enough.
"I felt like there was a lot of traffic and it was a high ball," Welker said. "I didn't want to get into a situation where someone was running into me or something else, and I ended up with the situation I didn't want to happen in the first place. I have to do a better job of getting up there and getting those guys out of the way and making sure it doesn't hit them."
Welker entered the game as Manning's favorite target with a team-leading 61 receptions, but he caught just half of the eight passes thrown his way as Manning finished 19 of 36 for 150 yards — his lowest total since 2009 — and an unimpressive 70.4 passer rating.
Manning has had just two poor performances all season: this one and his unhappy homecoming at Indianapolis in October, where he put up big numbers but lost a fumble, threw an interception and was sacked a season-high four times, twice by Robert Mathis. One of those resulted in a safety in a 39-33 loss to Andrew Luck and the Colts.
Manning is now 4-10 against Brady and the Patriots.
"They're a great team," Denver defensive end Malik Jackson said, "and I'm sure we will see them again."
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