Big hole too much to overcome

The pregame excitement for the Patriots involved the anticipated yet improbable return of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, an emotional and spiritual leader of the three-time Super Bowl champs. Bruschi is trying to make a storybook comeback from a mild stroke and a heart problem.

If Bruschi's return is going to mean something, the Patriots better get back to being the Patriots. The ultimate 60-minute team is giving it 30 minutes these days. During a ridiculous opening schedule that's seen them suffer an alarming amount of key injuries, the Patriots, particularly the defense, are giving up too many big plays.

Watching on television, Bruschi must have been stunned during Sunday's 28-20 loss to the Broncos. Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith burned cornerback Duane Starks on a 72-yard crossing route. Deep receiver Ashley Lelie burned Starks for a 55-yard completion. Tatum Bell slipped through a stacked defense against the run and broke a 68-yard run.

The way the Patriots played Sunday and over portions of the past six weeks, Bruschi might not recognize his teammates on the field.

"Number 1, this isn't the same team," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. "Number 2, if you keep doing things that are not characteristic of your team, they become characteristic. A performance like that, it's ridiculous."

Who are these guys?

"At 3-3, we're an average team," linebacker Mike Vrabel said of the three-time Super Bowl champs. Coming into the Broncos game, the Patriots were the fourth-worst team in allowing plays over 20 yards, giving up 18 pass plays of 20 yards or more. On Sunday, they were burned for five more.

"Any time an offense makes a good play, there is a breakdown," Colvin said. "Somebody isn't in a gap or somebody didn't play a block. There were a lot of breakdowns."

Coach Bill Belichick runs a reign of terror in prohibiting his team from talking about injuries, but that is the story of this year's Patriots. Belichick might play games with constructing his injury lists each way, but the ailments are for real. They played the Broncos without Corey Dillon, Matt Light, Tyrone Poole, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour, Marquise Hill, Guss Scott and Kevin Faulk. Rookie James Sanders, filling in for Rodney Harrison and Scott, couldn't finish the game because of leg injury. In the backfield, Tom Brady was handing off to Patrick Pass and Amos Zereoue, who just joined the team. Arturo Freeman was signed last week and finished the game at safety.

The Patriots don't have enough healthy defensive linemen for a 4-3 or a 3-4. Vrabel played his first full game at inside linebacker -- ever. Linebackers Willie McGinest and Monty Beisel played the game wearing casts to protect broken bones in their hands.

But what the Patriots can't do is look at Bruschi and feel sorry for themselves. Here's Bruschi risking his long-term health to return to his team. The Patriots issued a statement saying Bruschi received clearance to play from outside specialists and will start a 21-day window this week to return to the field.

Belichick will work his team through an important bye week but there is almost too much to fix. The defense is giving up 27.3 points and 353.3 yards a game. Teams are averaging 125.3 rushing yards a game and 4.2 yards a carry. The pass defense has been horrible, giving up 15.2 yards a catch and two touchdowns a game. They've forced only three turnovers in six games.

Brady talked after the game about how this team make it's reputation concentrating and playing football for 60 minutes. Of late, the only thing the Patriots have close to 60 minutes is if they save the CBS program on their TiVo machines.

The Broncos jumped on the Patriots 28-3 by the 11:36 mark of the third quarter. They had gained 359 yards on 35 plays, a 10.3 yard average, at that point.

"We played the last 20 minutes, but until you play every game and every snap like that, it doesn't matter," Vrabel said. "It's got to be important to everyone. It's got to be important to everyone across the board. You've got to go into games thinking, 'We are going to get three-and-outs.' "

Teams have clearly sensed that the Pats are vulnerable and have persisted in attacking.

"We thought we would get an opportunity to make big plays," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "We watched film and saw Atlanta had some opportunities for big plays. The ball just didn't hit the right spot for them. We knew we would get a couple of shots, but we didn't know it would pan out just like that. They were big plays and they really make a big difference in the game."

Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter, Plummer started working the big-play machine. On a second-and-5 from the Broncos 23-yard line, coach Mike Shanahan called the perfect play against a Patriots man defense. Smith got the right angle on Starks and beat him for 72 yards. Two plays later, Bell scored on a 3-yard run.

"I never felt so good and played so bad," Starks said. Well, he was right about one thing. He played bad. Lelie burned him for 55 yards. Three plays later, Smith caught a 7-yard pass on Starks on a corner route to open a 14-3 lead.

Without Bruschi, the Patriots have been struggling to stop the run, and that was no more apparent than when Bell broke a 55-yard run when the Patriots had eight men in the box to stop the run.

"When Willie McGinest and I are on the outside, the ball's not coming around the corner and we've got to realize that," Vrabel said. "But we can't be expecting defensive backs to stop long runs."

The Broncos are 5-1, but they also have to be a little concerned about playing for 60 minutes. After their 28-3 lead in the first 34 minutes, they allowed the Patriots to come back. The Patriots shut down the Broncos offense until the final clock-killing drive with 2 minutes left. The Broncos offense was stopped, mostly in three-and-outs. Brady made drives and hit two touchdown passes to cut the lead to 28-20.

They got the ball back with five minutes left, but relentless blitzing pressure from the Broncos' defense finally got to Brady. Brady was hit on virtually every incompletion. On a second-and-10 from the Patriots' 38, Brady spotted a corner blitz from Darrent Williams. He rifled a pass into the empty flat and drew an intentional grounding penalty, which pretty much halted the possible game-tying drive.

Belichick had to punt and the Patriots never got the ball back.

"You can see why that football team has [won] 22 out of the 24 [games in which the opponents] are .500 or better," Shanahan said. "It's because they keep on fighting and making plays. It was a hard fought football game and we feel very fortunate to do the things we needed to do to win."

Champ Bailey's hamstring tightened up and he couldn't play the second half. So the Broncos had to survive against Brady using two rookie corners and former practice squad Curome Cox. Despite the lack of consistency at the end, the Broncos put up 432 yards and 28 points on the Super Bowl champs.

"We have to play better," Colvin said. "We can't give up 28 points every week. We have to play better defense. I was disgusted in Carolina and in the San Diego game. We always expect to win."

The frustration climaxed on the final play of the first half. Adam Vinatieri missed a 53-yard field goal that could have cut the Broncos lead to 15 points but rookie guard Logan Mankins was ejected and penalized 15 yards for allegedly hitting defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban below the belt, taking away his breath. That left the Patriots offensive line without a backup guard because Russ Hochstein, one of only seven active linemen, had to play the second half.

Bruschi is only one player. The remaining schedule isn't so bad after the bye because the Patriots should clearly dominate a shaky AFC East. But they have to play smarter and better. They have to play Tedy Bruschi football.

What Bruschi watched on television screen wasn't anywhere near Patriots football. The bye week has come. The Patriots are 3-3. The work now begins.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.