The New England Patriots barely missed a beat when Tom Brady served his monthlong “Deflategate” suspension, going 3-1 and keeping up with the undefeated Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Trevor Siemian, the 250th overall draft pick in 2015, outdueled a trio of top overall selections in Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston during a magnificent first month as Peyton Manning’s surprise successor.
Then, reality hit — along with Buccaneers defensive tackle Clinton McDonald .
He flung Siemian to the turf, bruising his left shoulder, the first in a string of injuries that have sidelined the likes of DeMarcus Ware, C.J. Anderson, Aqib Talib and Derek Wolfe while helping to break the Broncos’ stranglehold on the AFC West.
With an anemic offense and a depleted defense, the Broncos (6-3) are looking up at not only the Patriots (7-1) in the AFC but two teams in their own division. The resurgent Raiders (7-2) and the Chiefs (6-2) are ahead of them in the AFC West, which the Broncos have owned since Tim Tebow was running the read-option and not the bases.
“We’ve just got to find a way to stay on the damn field,” said coach Gary Kubiak, whose team leads the league in three-and-outs, putting a back-breaking strain on its dazzling defense.
Behind Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, the Raiders are seeking their first playoff berth since 2002, and their 30-20 drubbing of Denver on Sunday was their biggest win in more than a decade.
“We know we can’t look at this game as something that’s going to define us or define the season,” running back Latavius Murray said after running for three touchdowns and half of Oakland’s 218 rushing yards.
By dominating the trenches and controlling the clock for 41:28, the Raiders were able to expose a weakness in Denver’s otherwise stellar defense.
“That’s something that we have to fix,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “It’s been leaky pretty much all season. So we have to figure that out and really put an emphasis on that, and get back to doing what we do.”
The Raiders won’t get caught up in their first-half success because they know holding off the Chiefs, who have won 10 consecutive home games , and Broncos, who have won five divisional titles in a row , won’t be easy.
Plus, New England is clearly the class of the conference now that Manning is pitching products instead of pigskins.
Brady is back and better than ever.
The Patriots, who visit Denver on Dec 18, are 4-0 with him back under center.
At age 39, that speed bump year when most elite QBs have either traded in two-minute drills for 30-second spots or are just trying not to tarnish their legacy, Brady has thrown for a dozen TDs and not a single interception in four games.
His completion rate of 73.1 percent is nearly 10 points above his career average, and his passer rating of 133.9 would be a career high if he can maintain this pace over the second half.
Brady is two wins shy of Brett Favre’s 199 career victories and three wins shy of Manning’s record 200 wins, a mark the five-time MVP set when the Broncos won Super Bowl 50.
“It’s pretty early, so, there’s a long way to go,” Brady said. “Seven wins, it’s a good place, I think decent position. But coach always says ‘Seven wins won’t get you anything in this league.’ He’s right. We’ve got a lot of football ahead.”
As well as things have gone for the Patriots, the trade of defense stalwart Jamie Collins was a reminder to everyone — Brady included — that no one has infinite time in the Patriots’ locker room.
“You can’t be around this long and not realize that the world will keep spinning and the sun will come up tomorrow without you,” Brady said.
The next two months will show whether Bill Belichick’s trade of Collins was a huge mistake or a heeded message.
New England is well on its way to an eighth consecutive AFC East title, holding a three-game lead over second-place Miami (4-4).
The Houston Texans (5-3) are the only .500-or-better team in the AFC South, but they were throttled 27-9 in Brock Osweiler’s return to Denver.
At least the South has a winning team. The Ravens and Steelers are tied atop the North at 4-4.
Nothing epitomizes Pittsburgh’s paradoxical season as well as kicker Chris Boswell’s flubbed onside kick Sunday in the final minute of the Steelers’ 21-14 loss to Baltimore. Boswell attempted what in soccer is known as a “rabona” — where the kicking leg is wrapped around the other leg before striking the ball. But Boswell kicked the ball right into his other foot.
A lot of teams seem to be tripping over themselves in an attempt to keep up with Brady and the Patriots this season. Indeed, the only conference teams with winning records halfway through the schedule are the Patriots, Texans and the trio from the AFC West.
And all the way at the bottom, 0-9 with few prospects for getting a victory, are the Cleveland Browns.
“I’ve never been 0-and-9 before, so you better believe it’s the toughest challenge I’ve ever had,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “But I am excited about the challenge and I truly believe that we’ve got a tough road ahead of us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow and Kyle Hightower contributed.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton