FOXBOROUGH – This game was anything but Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.
It was turnover versus turnover. It was one team doing great in the first half and the other team doing great in the second half. It was Knowshon Moreno trying his best to look like Adrian Peterson. It was Bill Belichick taking the wind instead of the ball in overtime.
And the game came down to a blown punt reception involving, of all people, Wes Welker.
Welker never called off Tony Carter, a formerly anonymous special team player, as he prepared to catch a Ryan Allen punt at the ten-yard line with just over two minutes left in overtime. The Allen punt took one bounce in front of Welker and struck Carter on the right hand. The ball then became live, and Nate Ebner pounced on the ball at the Denver 14. Two kneel downs and a two-minute warning later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 31-yard field goal to give the Patriots a wild but classic 34-31 overtime win at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night over the Denver Broncos.
The Patriots at one point trailed 24-0, but scored four straight touchdowns in the second half to forge ahead 28-24. The Patriots coughed up three fumbles in the first quarter, which turned into 17 Bronco points. But Denver turned the ball over in the second half three times, and the Patriots were able to capitalize and rally to eventually win.
The game was played under significant weather conditions. The temperature was in the teens all game long with wind chill factors in single digits. The wind was blowing strongly from the left end zone to the right end zone. These conditions prevented the shootout between the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks that everyone was looking for, but the teams still managed to put on a good show in a year where the NFL has been hurting for compelling games. This was arguably the best NFL game of the year to this point.
Overtime began ominously for the Patriots. The Broncos lost the coin flip, but Rob Ninkovich looked to the sideline as if to say “What do we do?” What transpired almost looked like a repeat of Abner Haynes’ famous “We’ll kick to the clock” mis-call in the 1962 AFL title game. Haynes’ gaffe in the end did not hurt the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs), and the captains did indeed heed Belichick’s wishes. Belichick elected to take the wind and defend the left end zone, giving Manning the ball first in OT.
This seems like very risky strategy on the surface. Belichick takes the wind only because it was that much of a significant factor, and the still-new rule that allows an overtime game to continue if the team that possesses the ball first kicks a field goal. The Patriots could survive a Matt Prater field goal on that first possession, but the Broncos would need to drive deep into Patriot territory to kick a field goal into the stiff wind. It was a gamble, but a sound gamble.
In the end, Denver possessed the ball twice in overtime. Denver began its first drive at the 20, and two Moreno runs got them to the 46. But a pass interference call on Eric Decker on a pick play pushed the Broncos back to their 42, and on third down and 14 Manning tried to hit Demaryius Thomas on a deep left sideline route, but Aqib Talib stayed with him and knocked the ball away. The second drive began at the Denver 13. A Moreno 18-yard run and a slant pass to former Colt chum Jacob Tamme put Manning at the Patriot 39. On third down and 8, Welker ran a crossing pattern to the left, Manning hit him in stride, and Welker simply dropped the ball. After a delay of game penalty, the Broncos punted again.
The Patriots also had two possessions in overtime, and did far less with their offense. A 12-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski was sandwiched between two short Brandon Bolden runs. Then Brady tried to hit Kenbrell Thompkins on a slant pattern, but was held by Quentin Jammer as he made his in-cut. It was obvious interference, but no flag was thrown. Brady screamed at the officials, but on third down and four, Brady tried to lob a long pass to Julian Edelman but overthrew him and the Patriots had to punt. It was a curious call on third and four.
The second drive began with a nice slant pass to Edelman for 17 yards, but Brady misfired on the next two passes and hit Thompkins for only six yards. That’s only 36 total yards for the two drives, whereas the Broncos moved the ball 82 gross yards on their two drives.
But Allen’s second punt resulted in the play of the evening. Welker was positioned at the Denver ten-yard-line. Allen punted right towards Welker, but Welker needed to come in to make the catch. Welker never called off Carter, coming in from Welker’s right side. The ball bounced and struck Carter, and Ebner fell on the ball.
The folks who hadn’t given up on the team down 24-0 went into instant hysteria. Brady took the first snap and fell down in the middle of the field. Denver spent one of its two timeouts, then the Patriots brought out Gostkowski on second down. Then Brady came back out and ran a keeper up the middle, and the crowd got to see a rare overtime two-minute warning (there was a tie earlier in the day between Minnesota and Green Bay). After the warning, Gostkowski came on to kick the field goal. Denver called its last timeout to ice Gostkowski, but Gostkowski is no Billy Cundiff. Gostkowski put his foot in the ball as if he was sitting on the sofa taking a nap. Ball game.
The Patriots dug themselves a deep hole in the first half. The first three drives ended in lost fumbles. Stevan Ridley returned to Belichick’s doghouse by coughing up the ball on the eighth play of the game and Miller returned the fumble 60 yards for a touchdown. Two plays into the next drive, Miller beat Nate Solder badly and strip sacked Brady. Terrence Knighton recovered the fumble, and two plays later Moreno blasted in from the one. Then three plays into the next drive, LeGarrette Blount was clobbered by Duke Ihenacho and Danny Trevathan recovered, which led to a Prater field goal. Tamme would catch a 10-yard scoring pass from Manning in the second quarter to make it 24-0 Broncos.
A weird chain of events swung the game towards the Patriots near the end of the first half. With 15 seconds left, Trindan Holliday muffed an Allen punt and Marquice Cole recovered at the Denver 42. Brady threw a Hail Mary into the end zone which resulted in Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie getting injured and not returning.
That proved critical as the Patriots came out firing in the third quarter. Edelman caught a five-yard scoring toss from Brady, then a Montee Ball fumble soon after led to a one-yard run by Bolden to make it 24-14. A sack of Manning gave the ball back to the Patriots, and Brady hit Gronkowski from six yards out to make it 24-21. Into the fourth quarter, Logan Ryan jumped a Decker route in the left flat for an interception, and soon after the Patriots had their first lead of the night when Brady hit Edelman for a 14-yard touchdown catch.
Manning relied more on Moreno than himself to win the game, and it may have cost him in the end. Moreno rushed for 224 yards on 37 catches and a 6.1 average. Manning passed for only 150 yards and had a 70.4 passer rating. Brady was 34 of 50 for 344 yards and three touchdowns, and a passer rating of 107.4.
With Indianapolis losing to Arizona, the Patriots are now the second seed in the AFC. If they win out, they will do no worse than a first round bye. If Denver should lose one more game along the way, the Patriots would get the one seed based on their win against Denver. The win was huge for the Patriots, a stout effort given the fact that they were losing 24-0 at one time.
It was wonderful vindication for the Patriots. Brady beat Manning again, and the key play was a mistake by Welker. With Thanksgiving on Thursday, the Patriots have a lot to be thankful for.