FOXBORO -- In a game of keepaway, Tom Brady led scoring drives of 12, 14, 16 and 16 plays while Wes Welker scorched the Broncos for 13 catches and 104 yards helping the Patriots turn back Peyton Manning and the Broncos, 31-21, Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Brady finished 23-of-31 for 223 yards, a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown. Manning finished 31-of-44 and 345 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots set a new franchise record with 35 first downs.
Stevan Ridley became the first Patriots running back to rush for over 100 yards in consecutive games since Laurence Maroney in 2007, carrying the ball 28 times for 151 yards. In winning their second straight, New England improved to 3-2 and gained sole possession of first place in the AFC East, pending Monday night's game between the Jets and Texans at MetLife Stadium.
Rob Ninkovich had a strip-sack that led to a Vince Wilfork recovery and forced a critical Willis McGahee fumble as the Broncos were deep in Patriots territory and down just 10 with four minutes left. McGahee, a drive earlier, dropped a certain first down on fourth-and-1 to help the Patriots survive a shaky fourth quarter that began with them leading 31-7.
With Manning coming out throwing on the first four plays of the game and moving the Broncos down the field, Sterling Moore - as he did in the AFC Championship - came up with a key play of the game. A wide open Demaryius Thomas caught a 43-yard pass from Manning over the middle and rambled down to the Patriots 10. But Moore came up from behind, caught Thomas and poked the ball free. Moore scrambled to his feet and recovered the ball at the Patriots 3 and returned it to the 16.
Brady was able to move it to the 31 before the Patriots were forced to punt. After a Broncos punt, the Patriots offense took control using the no-huddle offense. Brady orchestrated TD drives of 84 and 80 yards, totaling 12 and 14 plays respectively. Brady hit Wes Welker in the left flat for a 6-yard TD to get scoring underway in the first quarter.
Manning responded with a long drive of his own, using a 19-yard passing interference call on Devin McCourty in end zone to set up a 1-yard TD strike to Joel Dreesen. Brady came back and marched down the field. After a 9-yard completion to Brandon Lloyd inches shy of the goal line, Shane Vereen ran it in for his second career TD and a 14-7 Patriots lead.
The Patriots were pinned at their own 1-yard line when Brady led a 16-play drive that had New England first and goal at the Denver 9. But the drive stalled and the Patriots had to settle for a 23-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal that gave them a 17-7 halftime lead. Welker had nine catches on 10 targets in the first half for 71 yards. The nine catches are the most he's ever had in his career in the first half.
After going three-and-out for the first time to open the second half, Brady got the ball back and led the team on another 16-play drive, capped off when he dove over the middle from one yard for the TD. The Patriots scored 18 seconds later after Ninkovich strip-sacked Manning lead to Ridley touchdown run of six yards.
It was the 65th straight game the Patriots won at home when leading at halftime. The Patriots hit the road again next Sunday, as they take on the Seahawks in Seattle before returning home on the 21st to take on the Jets.