By: Steve Balestrieri
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The New England Patriots capped an epic comeback with a Stephen Gostkowski 31 yard FG with less than two minutes remaining in overtime to beat the Denver Broncos 34-31 on Sunday night in a cold, windy Foxboro Stadium.
It was indeed a tale of two halves as the Patriots bumbled and stumbled through the first 30 minutes, fumbling the ball away on their first three possessions of the game and spotting Denver a 17-0 lead early in the first quarter. The Broncos, using a devastatingly effective ground game would pound out a 24-0 halftime lead, which prompted the Patriots to leave the field to a crescendo of boos.
Three different Patriots fumbled the ball away, (Stevan Ridley, LaGarrette Blount, Tom Brady) as the Patriots could move the ball, but just couldn’t hold onto it. Meanwhile Peyton Manning was off to 17-0 lead in a strange scenario where he scarcely threw the ball.
But coming out in the third quarter with the second half kickoff, someone flipped the switch and the Patriots started quickly. Tom Brady led an eight play-80 yard drive capped off by a touchdown pass to Julian Edelman and the Pats were off and running.
The third quarter hasn’t been a good one for New England this season, but not on Sunday night. As quickly as they fell behind on Sunday, they stormed right back scoring 21 points in a strangely flip-flopped stanza that saw the momentum completely flip.
New England would score 31 straight points before Manning led the Broncos on an eight play-80 yard drive near the end of regulation to tie the score and set up overtime. Both teams at this point were nearing exhaustion and with a little bit more than 3 minutes remaining in OT, the Patriots punted.
Trindan Holiday was benched and Wes Welker was back to return the punt for Denver. Welker was a tad late in waving off his own gunners coming back to for the return and the punt bounced off of Tony Carter and was recovered by Nate Ebner for the Patriots. Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning FG through the uprights and the Patriots escaped with a very unlikely win considering the way the game started.
In head-to-head matchups Brady now has a commanding 10-4 advantage over Peyton Manning. While the 2006 AFCCG playoff comeback will always be a topic of conversation, this come from behind win will soon take its place in the mix.
Since 2001, teams up by 24 points were 148-2, Manning in games where he was up by 22 or more points was 50-0 until Sunday.
Some other observations from Sunday include:
Brady/Offense Getting Hot: Don’t look now but that Patriots offense that had Brady screaming in frustration is now long gone. The past three games has ignited the passing game and Brady’s numbers reflect an offense that is beginning to take its shape.
Since the Pittsburgh game, Brady is 86 for 123 for 1072 yards with 8 TDs and 1 INT. That rounds out to a 69.9 completion percentage, a 8.71 yards per attempt average and a QB rating of 114.9.
As we saw in our pre-game Razor’s Edge piece, Brady used the short passing game to neutralize the Broncos pass rush and was very effective in spreading it around. In the second half, throwing the short-medium range, Brady was 20-24 for 161 yards and 3 TDs.
Edelman, Thompkins Key Fast Start in 3rd Qtr: With the Patriots down 24-0 to open the 2nd half, Tom Brady jump started the offense using two players who have been secondary pieces to the offense lately.
Julian Edelman and Kembrell Thompkins both played key roles in the opening drive that finally got the offense untracked. Thompkins caught three passes for 25 yards on the opening drive and Julian Edelman caught the final two passes, the second, a 5-yard touchdown pass to get the offensive explosion going.
Edelman finished with a nine catch, 110 yard, 2 touchdown effort on the evening. He also returned three punts for 39 yards. Contrast his output with the “Big Three” of Denver. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker combined for 9 catches for only 77 yards. Thompkins finished with 6 catches for 56 yards.
Ryan, Collins and Green Step Up: With the myriad of injuries on the Patriots defense, rookies Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins and Justin Green were forced to step up and play prominent roles for the Patriots defense. And they played extremely well in what they were asked to do. The most telling point is that the Patriots didn’t have to change the way they played defense with the youngsters in there.
It was a fantastic performance for the young players and will serve them well going forward and into the playoffs. Frequently the Patriots and Bill Belichick get blasted by critics for getting those “value picks”, but on Sunday, in a big game, those value picks paid off…in spades.
Contrast this again to Denver’s predicament, once Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie went down at the end of the first half, Tom Brady picked on his replacements to the point where Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had to change the Denver defense from a man coverage scheme to more zone, which they are uncomfortable running.
The result was Brady having plenty of room to throw the ball in and he shredded the Denver defense in the second half.
Great Effort By Moreno Goes Unnoticed: In perhaps a unfair twist of fate, Knowshon Moreno’s huge night of running the football will get little notice because of the way the game ended. But on a night where he was hurting and frequently limped off the field, Moreno turned in a fantastic, gutty performance running the ball 37 times for 224 yards, just four yards short of the Denver franchise record.
On a night where the Patriots were going with lighter sub-packages to try to slow down the Denver passing attack, they knew the Broncos would be able to run somewhat. They were just unprepared for how well Denver did run. Moreno, along a with a stellar run blocking performance by the Broncos offensive line, frequently gashed the Patriots interior time and again for enormous chunks of yardage.
Had this game turned out differently, Moreno would be the star of the game, instead his performance is relegated somewhat to an afterthought. Unfairly so.
Pats Defense, Not Cold, Hold Manning In Check: Much was made of Peyton Manning’s disdain for and his poor record in cold weather games prior to Sunday night. And while the conditions did affect the passing game, to say that the weather was the reason does disservice to the game plan of Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia and the play of the Patriots secondary.
The Patriots defense got plenty of pressure on Manning Sunday night and while they were only credited with two sacks, their pressure kept Manning off-balance all night in the passing game. He finished with a pedestrian 19 for 36 for only 150 yards, with 2 TDs and 1 Interception for a QB rating of 70.4. This was the first game since going to Denver that Manning threw for less than 200 yards.
Chandler Jones was very disruptive in the passing game and as a result, Manning was never able to get into a rhythm in the passing game. That and some stellar play by the Patriots secondary playing tight man coverage was the difference.
Brandon Spikes deserves special kudos for his performance. On a night where he was downgraded to questionable for a knee issue, Spikes stepped up and played very well. Like Moreno, he frequently came up limping after many plays, but was able to make the plays when they counted in the 2nd half.
Division Lead Now To Three Games: Lost amid all the post-game hoopla was the fact that earlier on Sunday, both the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins lost which, with the Pats OT win pushes New England’s lead in the division to three games with just five games to play.
This gives the Patriots a near insurmountable lead in the AFC East and puts them in-line for another divisional title. The win puts the Patriots at 8-3 and in firm control of their own destiny in terms of playoff seeding. If they win out, they can do no worse than a #2 seed and still have an outside shot at the #1.
But first things first, Belichick always preaches win the division first and now they are in prime position to win the division again.