It was fitting that the coldest regular-season game played in Foxboro in the last 20 years (22 degrees) was also (one of) the best regular-season games played in Foxboro in the last 20 years. For the 10th time in 14 career meetings with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady got the best of the other best quarterback of our era after Denver dominated the home team in the first half, but just the first half, scoring the first 24 points of the game and forcing three turnovers.
It was the final turnover, however, that was the biggest one. Denver special teams player, Tony Carter, allowed the ball to hit him after Wes Welker, back to return the kick with three minutes remaining in overtime, may have made the “get away” call just a little too late. New England recovered and three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski capped the biggest comeback in Patriots’ history with a 31-yard field goal to beat the Denver Broncos, 34-31.
If you’re going to turn the ball over three times in a game, you might as well get them all out of your system in the first half.
“The weather conditions get a little tough [and] things can turn quickly,” said Brady, who finished 34-of-50 for 344 yards and three touchdowns, of the second-half turnaround.
Despite only one touchdown pass from Manning in the first half, Denver jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead thanks to Patriots’ fumbles on each of their first three possessions. Von Miller returned the first 60 yards for a touchdown 4:53 into the game and Kowshon Moreno plowed in from two yards out just over a minute later following a Brady fumble that was returned to the New England 10. They were two of his 224 rushing yards on the night, easily a career-high.
Then, LeGarrette Blount put the ball on the ground, leading to a field goal and quick 17-0 lead before Manning threw his first touchdown pass to in the second quarter to make it 24-0 all before the break.
It seemed like it would be a laugher after the first 30 minutes, but Brady drove the Pats down the field after receiving the second-half kickoff and after just eight plays, hit Julian Edelman from five yards out to make it 24-7. Then, after five straight draw plays to begin their first drive of the half, Moreno put the ball on the ground as Dane Fletcher jarred it out and Brandon Spikes got the recovery. Six plays after that, Brandon Bolden ran it in from a yard out and just like that it was 24-14. By the end of the third, it was 24-21 as Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on 3rd-and-6 to bring the Pats within three.
It kept going after that. Manning threw just his sixth interception of the year into the arms of Logan Ryan and three plays later, Brady hit Edelman for their second scoring connection of the night to cap the 30-yard, 78-second drive and somehow give the Patriots the 28-24 lead.
After Wesley Woodyard dropped a tipped interception that he had both his hands on and a would-be 2nd-and-20 was negated by an illegal hands to the face penalty, Gostkowski hit his 20th consecutive kick to give the Pats the seven-point lead with just over seven and a half remaining.
When it looked like it could be over on the next Denver drive, Aqib Talib, who had completely shut down Demaryius Thomas all night, was called for holding and negated his own interception, giving the Broncos some hope. Then Manning started converting third downs and Thomas started catching passes. And the Patriots started committing penalties. With 3:06 left, Manning hit Thomas from 11 yards out to tie the score at 31 after Denver picked up two first downs from penalties on the drive, including a pass interference call on Rob Ninkovich on 3rd-and-7 in the red zone. Brady would then go three and out and Ryan Allen was called to punt the ball to Welker with 1:45 remaining.
Denver took over at the 33-yard line, going into the wind. Then, Manning went three and out with a near sack from Andre Carter, a pass break-up from Kyle Arrington and an incomplete floater to give Brady one more chance from his own 11-yard line with 28 seconds left and two timeouts. Just a screen and a draw would take Brady and Manning to overtime, though.
After winning the coin toss, the Pats elected to forego possession and select the side of the field with the wind at their back, giving Manning and the Broncos the ball first. Both teams would trade possessions with New England’s ending on a long incomplete sideline pass on 3rd-and-4 after everyone thought Kenbrell Thompkins was interfered with on the previous throw, forcing the Pats to burn their first timeout to cool off.
When it seemed the Pats would be playing for a tie at best, the only thing that hadn’t happened in the game happened. Nate Ebner recovered the loose ball at the 18 and with 6’8’’ backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in the game to try to get the block, Gostkowski sent those who stuck it out home happy with a little bit of history to take with them.
Special teams players pile on Nate Ebner after he recovered the botched punt to set up the winning field goal.
“We just calmed down and each played one play at a time,” said Edelman, who finished with nine catches for 110 yards and the two huge touchdowns. “We didn’t turn the ball over in the second half.”
For Brady, it was his 33rd game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime and this was certainly one of the bigger ones as New England now controls its own destiny in its hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Denver turned the ball over four times in the second half while the Patriots played mistake-free and scored on all five of their possessions, including 21 points in the third quarter, 10 in the fourth and, of course, the three in overtime. Manning finished with just 150 passing yards while Brady put up 344. It was the Pats’ ability to score touchdowns and not having to settle for field goals that gave them a chance to get back in the game.
While they did fumble the ball six times, they only losy three. Welker finished his return to Foxboro with just four catches for 41 yards and, of course, it wouldn’t be a Welker outing at Gillette without a big drop.
“We had a lot of guys step up here,” said Bill Belichick after the game. “You could rattle off 35-40 guys.”
After the improbable victory, New England will move on to the disappointing Texans (2-9) while the Broncos will take on the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks.
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