FOXBORO -- As late Sunday night gave way to early Monday morning in a raucous Patriots locker room, Devin McCourty had a simple explanation as to how the Patriots pulled off the most ridiculous comeback win in recent franchise history.
“Someone forgot to push the button at Buffalo Wild Wings, I guess,” the defensive back said with a smile following the Patriots' 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos at a frozen Gillette Stadium.
Why not? It’s a good a reason as any. How else would you explain what happened? In a game that was half-action movie and half-theme park thrill ride, the Patriots dug themselves a 24-0 halftime deficit but came roaring back with 31 consecutive points in the third and into the fourth quarters. After a late rally from Peyton Manning tied it at the end of regulation, New England won it with just over three minutes left in overtime when a muffed punt set up Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winner, a 31-yarder that set a frigid Gillette Stadium into a frenzy.
“One minute we were down 24-0, the next minute we were kicking the game-winning field goal,” said cornerback Aqib Talib. “It went fast, man.”
It wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing game you’d ever want to see -- there were an astounding 11 fumbles, with six of them lost -- but it was an unforgettable classic, in every sense of the word. Two elite performances from the Hall of Fame quarterbacks, making plays with the game on the line. Standout individual efforts on both sides of the ball (Knowshon Moreno’s amazing 224 rushing yards will go down as nothing more than a footnote, and Brandon Spikes was out-of-this-world gutsy). And a series of game-changing plays that can be discussed from now until the start of next season.
Ultimately, the Patriots just made more plays at the right time, and moved to 8-3 on the season. Given everything that has happened to this team over the last eight months, it’s remarkable to think that if the Pats can run the table the rest of the way -- not a ridiculous thought, given the fact that their remaining opponents have a combined record of 20-35, with none of them over .500 -- New England could enter the postseason with the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
“It was a good win,” said Brady.
Where to start? In Brady-Manning XIV, with the quarterbacks: For New England, Brady ended up going 34-for-50 with 344 yards and three touchdowns. After a miserable start, he had an epic finish, leading his team back from 24 down for one of the great comebacks wins of his career. Julian Edelman had nine catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, while Shane Vereen added eight catches for 60 yards.
On the other side of the ball, Manning finished 19-for-36 for 150 yards with two touchdowns and a pick. Manning’s numbers were especially amazing given the fact that he was working with short fields, and on a windy night Denver decided to lean on the running game more than usual. As a result, Moreno had 37 carries for 224 yards and one touchdown. Wes Welker, in his return to Foxboro, had four catches for 31 yards. He was matched up against Kyle Arrington for much of the night and was a nonfactor for most of the contest.
When it was all done, Manning was asked for his thoughts.
“Disappointed,” he replied simply.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, with the comeback, the Patriots became just the second team since 2001 to win a game after trailing by at least 24 points at the end of the first half. (The only other team to win after trailing by that much? Manning led Denver back from a similar deficit last season against San Diego.)
“That was a heck of an effort by our players,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I’m really proud of the way they fought back. You spot a team like Denver 24 points … we just took it one play at a time [and] kept fighting all the way through.”
It was a resume-building victory for a New England team that displayed mental toughness, resolve and grit in the wake of a difficult situation. There were several outstanding individual performances, particularly on the defensive side of the ball from players who were clearly not at 100 percent. For a unit without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly -- as well as starting safety Steve Gregory, who was out Sunday night -- it was the sort of effort defensive coordinator Matt Patricia could be really proud of, especially against the best passing game in the league. Spikes was limping throughout the game but still managed to make more than his share of plays. Talib was hobbling. And cornerback Alfonzo Dennard gutted his way through the first half before yielding to Logan Ryan.
In the end, on a wild night, it was just enough to outlast the Broncos.
“We’ll take it,” Talib added.
In addition to Gostkowski’s game-winner, here are nine other plays that helped define a classic.
FIRST QUARTER, 10:07 LEFT, NO SCORE: STEVAN RIDLEY FUMBLES, SETTING THE TONE FOR THE EVENING
With no score and just over 10 minutes left in the first quarter, the Patriots had done an excellent job maneuvering the ball down the field on their first series of the evening. Brady and New England had gotten to the Denver 40, and were sitting on 2nd and 3. The quarterback handed the ball to Ridley, who was popped at the line of scrimmage by Wesley Woodyard. The ball squirted free, and Von Miller immediately picked it up and ran 60 yards in the other direction for the first score of the night. It was the fourth lost fumble of the season for Ridley, who did not play for the rest of the game. The first of a remarkable 11 fumbles on the evening (three of which were lost by the Patriots), it set the tone for the fumble frenzy. New England struggled with ball security throughout the early going, losing three fumbles on the night. (Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brady all lost fumbles in the first half.)
FIRST QUARTER, 10:07 LEFT, BRONCOS LEAD, 7-0: VON MILLER GOES BEAST MODE AGAIN
In truth, we could have chosen from any one of Miller’s snaps for the night, but it might be best to pick up the one where he sacked Brady and forced a fumble on New England’s second drive of the evening. On a 2nd and 10 play at the New England 28, Miller beat left tackle Nate Solder off the edge and took down Brady from behind, knocking the ball free and creating the second forced turnover of the night for the Broncos. This time it was Terrance Knighton who took possession, getting the ball all the way down to the Patriots’ 10-yard line before he was tripped up by Logan Mankins. Two plays later, Moreno went in over the right guard for a touchdown to make it 14-0, silencing the sold-out crowd. Miller has made lots of tackles look foolish over the years, and he really humbled Solder and Marcus Cannon on Sunday to the tune of eight tackles (six solo), two sacks for 11 yards, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. Ugly stuff.
THIRD QUARTER, 11:26 LEFT, BRONCOS LEAD, 24-0: JULIAN EDELMAN PROVIDES A SPARK
Following the game, the Patriots all said -- to a man -- that the message coming out of the locker room at halftime down 24 was about stacking success, putting one positive play on top of another. They acknowledged there was no way they were going to get 24 points on one play -- instead, it was about getting back into the game one play at a time. To that point, they started the second half with a nice, sustained drive, an eight-play, 80-yard sequence that was highlighted by three passes and 25 yards through the air to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, and capped off by a sweet 5-yard floater to Julian Edelman for a touchdown. It was a nifty one-handed play by Edelman to haul it in against Quentin Jammer, but by no means the highlight of his night -- that came on a 43-yard pickup later in the third on a play where two Denver defenders bit on a double move that left him wide open. Ultimately, Edelman again proved himself to be utterly dependable, catching nine balls (on 11 targets) for a game-high 110 yards and two touchdowns. At a time where the Patriots needed something or someone to give them a jump, they got it from Edelman (who also had three punt returns for 39 yards).
THIRD QUARTER, 0:23 LEFT, BRONCOS LEAD, 24-14: ROB GRONKOWSKI CUTS IT TO THREE
The Patriots capped off their finest third quarter of the season with a scoring strike from Brady to Gronkowski, a 6-yard pass with 23 seconds remaining that put the capper on a five-play, 65-yard drive (highlighted by that 43-yard pass play to Edelman) and cut the Denver lead to 24-21. The play started as a patented seam route from the big tight end, who simply stopped a couple of steps into the end zone and posted up a defender like a power forward on the blocks. (The score also provoked one of the most animated displays of emotion this season from the quarterback.) After going the first two quarters with one catch for four yards, Gronkowski had seven catches (on 10 targets) for 90 yards and a touchdown on the night.
FOURTH QUARTER, 14:37 LEFT, BRONCOS LEAD, 24-21: LOGAN RYAN PICKS OFF PEYTON MANNING
By the start of the fourth quarter, despite the fact that Denver was holding a lead, it was clear the momentum had swung back in New England’s favor. Manning and the Broncos opened the quarter on their own 22, and after a four-yard pickup, the quarterback dropped back to pass, but appeared momentarily thrown by the sight of a blitzing Kyle Arrington off the edge. Arrington left Welker uncovered for the briefest of moments -- and Manning likely would have preferred to get the pass to Welker, who was close to the first down marker -- but had to get rid of the ball quicker than he would have liked. As a result, he ended up almost dumping it off to Eric Decker. Only problem was, Decker didn’t look like he was completely ready for it, and Ryan jumped in front of the ball. Ryan had the pick -- his second of the season -- but the play was set up nicely by the veteran corner Arrington and the fact that he was able to ruffle Manning. The Patriots cashed it in three plays later when Brady hit Edelman for a 14-yarder (a play where Edelman was able to provide all 14 yards after the catch on a brilliant spin move and splash into the end zone for the touchdown), and New England never trailed the rest of the way.
FOURTH QUARTER, 11:34 LEFT, PATRIOTS LEAD, 28-24: WESLEY WOODYARD NEARLY RUINS IT FOR THE PATRIOTS
After getting the ball back, the Patriots were on the move again, marching inside Denver territory on their first extended drive of the fourth quarter when Brady found Vereen on an underneath route out of the backfield. But the running back -- who is usually pretty dependable as a pass catcher -- juggled the ball, and Woodyard appeared to come away with it. But the linebacker couldn’t maintain the handle, and saw the ball drop to the ground. The Patriots would end up maintaining possession, taking the ball all the way down to the Denver 13-yard line before settling for a 31-yard field goal from Gostkowski. On a night where one key play here or there would end up turning the tide, it represented a huge missed opportunity for the Denver defense.
FOURTH QUARTER, 3:10 LEFT, PATRIOTS LEAD, 31-24: MANNING SHOWS SOME METTLE
With the game starting to slip away, Manning led the Broncos on a tough drive late in the fourth. The quarterback helped engineer a 10-play, 80-yard series -- one that included a pair of New England penalties, one a defensive holding call on Aqib Talib and another coming on a defensive pass interference from Rob Ninkovich -- that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the corner of the end zone to tie the game at 31 with 3:10 remaining, (On the play, Thomas beat Talib to the spot and made a nice grab.) For the Broncos to stem the tide in that situation and respond with a touchdown to tie the game showed terrific mental toughness.
END OF REGULATION, GAME TIED, 31-31: BILL BELICHICK DEFIES CONVENTION
In a decision that no doubt tickled former Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg (who infamously chose the wind as opposed to the ball at the start of an overtime session 11 years ago Sunday), Belichick decided to kick the ball away and chose to defend with the wind instead of taking the ball. The OT rules have changed since Mornhinweg’s infamous decision in 2002, but the move was still a curious one, given the fact that that the Patriots were giving the Denver offense a shot at a touchdown on its first possession, which would have ended the game. But the decision appeared to have paid off, as New England got a stop on its first drive.
OVERTIME, 3:11 LEFT, GAME TIED, 31-31: TONY CARTER FUMBLES IT AWAY
With the two teams swinging away at each other in the extra session like punch-drunk fighters -- neither team was able to connect on their first two scoring chances in the extra session -- Ryan Allen dropped back to punt from his own 43-yard line with 3:11 in the extra session. Welker was back, waiting on a return, but defensive back/special teamer Marquice Cole had Denver gunner Tony Carter (a former New England defensive back) caught in an incredibly awkward position and ended up blocking Carter into the ball before Welker could reach it. The ball popped loose, and Nate Ebner was able to recover it. It was an incredibly heads up play by Ebner and the coverage unit to make that sort of play in that kind of situation, allowing the Patriots to get into position for the game-winning field goal by Gostkowski.