FILE - In this Dec. 4, 2016, file photo, Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (10) runs the ball defended by Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith (50) during the second half of an NFL football game, in Jacksonville, Fla. Gary Kubi
Gary McCullough, File
December 20, 2016

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Gary Kubiak isn't backing down from his defense of Jordan Norwood. He does acknowledge, however, that Emmanuel Sanders could return punts as the Denver Broncos scramble to get into the playoffs over the holidays.

Rookie speedster Kalif Raymond provided a much-needed spark on special teams against Jacksonville and Tennessee after being promoted from the practice squad following Norwood's two muffed punts in an overtime loss to Kansas City last month.

Needing his most experienced slot receiver for the up-tempo game plan against New England last weekend, Kubiak activated Norwood in place of Raymond, which returned Norwood to his punt return duties.

That decision turned into a debacle when Norwood muffed his first punt return Sunday , which resulted in a turnover the Patriots turned into three points.

''Tough play that I've got to make,'' said Norwood, who spent the rest of the day getting away from Ryan Allen's punts, which resulted in poor field position for an already scuffling offense in Denver's 16-3 loss .

Norwood also coughed up the football on his one and only catch in the closing seconds, giving him five fumbles on 50 touches on the season. The only players in the league with more than five fumbles are all quarterbacks.

Norwood was shoved in the back by teammate Aqib Talib after a big muffed punt at midfield against the Chiefs on Nov. 27. This time, Kubiak had Norwood's back, defending him both after the game and again this week.

Asked whether he'd consider using the sure-handed Sanders, who has just one drop to go with his 78 receptions, as a punt returner as he did at times last season, Kubiak said, ''Yeah, it comes up, there's some thought there.''

''But I'm going to tell you guys again, I've got a lot of confidence in Jordan. And I'm disappointed he didn't handle the ball well and obviously that was (the case) a few weeks ago, too. He's got to handle the ball better,'' Kubiak said. ''But he's also made some big plays for this team and I put him back there, I'm the guy that put him back there. I believe in him.''

Kubiak said he was pleased with how Trevor Siemian ran Denver's no-huddle offense that set the tempo early on. Greg Knapp, the Broncos' QB coach and passing coordinator called the plays instead of Kubiak or offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.

''When we go hurry-up, I feel very comfortable with `Knapper' working with him because it cuts out the middle man, so to speak,'' Kubiak said. ''... I like to cut them loose and go. Obviously I have opinions, but I just think that it makes us play a little faster. I think we responded to that. We had some good ball movement in the first half.''

That pace helped dictate the Patriots' personnel and kept the pass rush at bay until Siemian's second-quarter interception led to the game's only touchdown and had the Broncos playing catch-up the rest of the afternoon.

However, it stands to reason that Norwood will be active again against the Chiefs, at least in the slot, given Kubiak's pleasure with the no-huddle offense and his confidence in Norwood.

Sanders said he's willing to return punts if asked but said he has confidence in Norwood.

Sanders said returning punts is the hardest job in the NFL, because ''you have 11 guys running down the field trying to knock your head off.''

''I have the utmost respect for Jordan and any punt returner that's in college, high school or NFL,'' Sanders said. ''That is a tough job and he's been doing well. He has the longest punt return in the history of the Super Bowl. He has done a great job for us. Is it fair that we're being hard on him? Yes, it is fair because obviously he has to do his job. But it is a tough job.''

He said Norwood just hit a rough patch, not unlike any other player hitting a slump.

''It can happen to any receiver or quarterback,'' Sanders said. ''You have those two-game droughts where you're doing bad and everybody is trying to mash you on the head and tell you that you're not doing a great job. But you have to get back on the horse and ride and try to make them highs.''

The Patriots made stopping Sanders a priority, holding him to three catches for 48 yards. But Sanders took offense when cornerback Malcom Butler told reporters he'd shut him down .

He said he beat Butler on the one snap they were in man, and ''other than that, it was Cover 2. So, tell the truth. ... My 2-year-old son Princeton Sanders can play Cover-2 in this league.''

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