Superlatives: Patriots 34, Broncos 31 OT
MOST SATISFYING FIRST SERIES
For the Patriots defense. Peyton Manning and the Broncos started sharp enough with a first down, but not much went right after that. Three plays later Manning was facing third-and-7 at his own 34-yard line. He looked to Welker for what Patriots fans know to be a sure first down. Dont'a Hightower was there to wrap Welker, and what's more, linebacker Jamie Collins swooped in to secure the stop just short of a conversion. Denver was forced to punt.
You have to feel for Stevan Ridley. The running back fumbled on New England's very first drive of the game. Broncos linebacker Von Miller recovered the ball and lumbered back 60 yards and into the end zone to put Denver on the board. The turnover marked Ridley's fourth (all lost) fumble through the first 10 games of the season. He had four over the whole of 2012. It seems his ball security issues are getting worse, not better. The question now is how long the Patriots plan to put up with it.
QUICKEST PATRIOTS DRIVE
New England's first effort to bounce back after Ridley's fumble? It lasted all of 32 seconds. On second-and-10, Miller spun around left tackle Nate Solder for a clear path to Tom Brady. Miller not only sacked the quarterback but forced the ball out. Denver recovered yet again. The consequent Broncos drive was actually shorter; they needed just 28 seconds to score another touchdown.
STRONGEST BID FOR MERCY RULE
Yes, it got worse. When the Patriots offense set out again, this time down 14-0, it was LeGarrette Blount who got the nod at power back; Ridley had his butt firmly planted on the bench. Blount was working on his second run when safety Duke Ihenacho nailed him with a tackle and knocked the ball out. Another fumble. According to ESPN Stats & Info, New England is the first team to lose three fumbles in the first quarter of a game since 2007.
MOST SURPRISING NUMBERS
Would it be 0 Patriots points after 30 minutes? Or maybe 6 Patriots fumbles after 30 minutes? Neither first half stat is…good. Here's one that's more interesting: 23 Broncos runs on 36 offensive plays. Denver may have the hottest offense in the league, but it's run off Manning and his impressive arsenal of pass catchers; the team is ranked 21st in the league for rushing yards. The going was easier Sunday night in Foxboro, however. Denver had 137 rushing yards at the half to New England's 73. Knowshon Moreno alone had 107 at the half, more than he's had in any game this season.
Halftime adjustments can do wonders. New England came out of the break and marched 80 yards downfield for a touchdown in less than four minutes. The scoring drive contained five first downs and Brady completed all 7 of his attempts, including a 5-yard pass that Julian bobbled about four times before corralling.
BIGGEST RELIEF FOR PATRIOTS
Turns out Denver can fumble too. The Broncos were attempting to answer New England's first score when running back Montee Ball got tackled by Dane Fletcher and fumbled. Fellow linebacker Brandon Spikes recovered at Denver's 41 and the Patriots were in business. The turnover was translated into points and the lead was cut to 24-14. Then things got even better. Manning had a self-fumble on the NEXT drive, in a third-and-5 situation, and Denver gave the ball away AGAIN.
Denver continued falling down as the second half went on. For all of Manning's greatness, he does get criticized for underperforming in the elements, and it appeared he couldn't keep it together in Sunday's cold. The veteran quarterback is 2-5 when playing in New England. With almost 15 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Denver was up 24-21 and Manning got in shotgun for first-and-10. He looked to Eric Decker and… got picked off. Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted the pass on the Broncos' 30. Brady -- with Brandon Bolden, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman -- needed just three plays to get New England the go-ahead touchdown.
It wasn't until Aqib Talib got called for defensive holding in the fourth quarter you realized how quiet Demaryius Thomas had been all game. Thomas came into Sunday night's game as the fourth-best receiver in the AFC, and seventh in the league. He also had the most yards after the catch in the NFL. Before Talib got flagged, he'd held Thomas to zero catches on the night. That changed quickly. The receiver finished the drive with 37 yards on three catches, including the game-tying touchdown reception. Talib may be one of the bigger, stronger, and fastest corners around, but Thomas ended up getting the better of him in the end.
BIGGEST RISK, BIGGEST REWARD
And so it went to overtime. The game was interesting enough before the coin toss, but when Denver lost it, New England raised eyebrows by choosing the wind instead of the ball. To assume the Broncos would not score and end the game was incredibly gutsy. Luckily, the choice paid off. Denver's drive fizzled out inside its own territory and the Patriots got a shot. Though New England didn't score on its own opportunity, the team went into sudden death with the night's strong winds in its favor.
Down 24-0 at halftime. Tied 31-31 at the end of regulation. Two failed drives for each team in overtime. If you tried to script this game, you couldn't. And the finish was just as strange. The Patriots punted after their second overtime drive and former fan favorite Wes Welker was back to receive for the Broncos. He waved his arms for a fair catch as the ball was taken by the wind. Teammate Tony Carter was too preoccupied by trying to deal with special teamer Marquice Cole and didn't hear Welker's poison call until it was too late. The ball took an odd bounce and hit Carter. Patriot Nate Ebner dove onto the ball to recover at the Denver 13-yard line. Just like that, New England got the game in the bag. Stephen Gostkowski, who's been streaking since September, nailed the 31-yarder. Largest comeback to win in Patriots team history.