FOXBORO -- Stevan Ridley had just finished the best game of his professional career, but his demeanor afterward belied his performance. Sullenly, he stood in front of his locker, transforming it into a football confessional. He was there to declare that he had sinned.
"It didn't end the way I wanted it to," Ridley said sheepishly.
Not even 151 yards rushing -- a career high -- and a touchdown could take the sting out of what Ridley did near the end of the fourth quarter. Given a chance to run out the clock and put the Broncos away, Ridley fumbled. He was asked to be his team's closer, and he failed.
The Broncos did not take advantage of Ridley's error, lucky for him. Denver running back Willis McGahee coughed up his own fumble seven plays later deep in New England territory, and the Patriots went on to win, 31-21.
Still, Ridley focused more on his untimely drop than on his 28 bruising -- and, at times, electric -- carries.
"It was late in the game. You gotta close it out. You gotta run the football," Ridley said. "You know, I told myself before the play 'I gotta hold onto the football' before I went out on that series. But the Broncos are getting paid to play, too. You can't make any excuses. I messed up. I'm sure coach Bill Belichick is going to have something to say about it, but like I said, it's always another day tomorrow. I'll be back to work and work on ball security high and tight. That's all I can do."
The fumble was a harsh reminder of the fumbling problems Ridley had at the end of last season. Then a rookie, the miscues weren't crippling. He wasn't the team's lead back, and the Patriots weren't without one of their stars when they decided to keep him off the field for the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
But now he's solidified his place as New England's top runner -- he's rushed for over 100 yards in three games this season -- and the ball-security issues persist. He fumbled out of bounds in Week 4 against the Bills, and it happened again on Sunday.
"That fumble in the end man, that really does, that kills me," Ridley said. "That's something that you can't feel sorry for yourself about it. You just have to improve and focus and I gotta get better at that. For me that's the part, that's the low of the night. There's some things up front . . . I don't wanna take anything away from the offensive line, they did a tremendous job up front. But me as an individual, I have to improve on holding onto that football in the fourth quarter."
Ridley's turnover cast a cloud over a running game that continues to produce in a big way. For the first time since 1978 Patriots rushers have put together back-to-back 200-yard games, churning up 251 yards on the ground on 51 carries against Denver.
Need more evidence to the fact that the Patriots offense is emphasizing the run? Tom Brady threw 31 passes. That's 20 fewer pass plays than run plays.
"You just cant drop back and throw it 60 times every game," Brady said. "You have to be balanced and I think were doing a very good job of when were calling the runs, were executing them. Were gaining some significant yards per attempt. I hope we keep it up."
Brady said that, like last week against Buffalo, the Patriots were able to take advantage of Denver's defensive personnel by running the ball.
"Were getting a lot of nickel defense," Brady said. "When they put little guys out there, we have to take advantage of it. I think were playing definitely a more physical style and controlling the tempo of the game by running the football. We have to keep doing it."
Danny Woodhead rushed for 47 yards on seven carries, the highlight was a 19-yard run for a first down with the Patriots facing a third-and-17 on their second series of the third quarter. That play kept a drive alive that resulted in a Tom Brady 1-yard touchdown plunge.
Rookie Brandon Bolden ran for 54 yards on 14 carries one week after gashing the Bills for 137 yards on the ground. After Ridley's fumble, it was Bolden who was trusted to run out the clock on the New England's final drive, running three times for 18 yards.
Though Ridley watched from the sideline while Bolden filled in as closer, he praised his teammates and complimented the offense's progression as a unit after it helped get New England's record (3-2) over .500 for the first time this season.
"For some reason the last two weeks this offense is moving in the right direction," he said. "But we're not satisfied."
The least of which was Ridley, who, even after the game of his life, realized he still had a lot to learn.