FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots 34-31 overtime win over the Denver Broncos was the team's largest comeback victory in franchise history.
Let that sink in.
It was a bizarre game, marked by the cold (22 degrees at kickoff, a record at Gillette Stadium for a regular season game) and 11 fumbles – none bigger than Tony Carter's, who was hit by a bouncing football in overtime while working on the punt return unit. (Wes Welker frantically tried to get him to move away.) Nate Ebner recovered, setting up Stephen Gostkowski's game-winning 31-yard field goal.
Down 24 points to the league's top offense, and more specifically to quarterback Peyton Manning, the Patriots seemed doomed. But something clicked during halftime that allowed the Patriots to turn a page. And in doing so, they toppled the best team in AFC and likely the NFL.
Here's my takeaways from the game:
1. The Patriots take the wind, win the game -- To start overtime, Bill Belichick instructed his captains to defer, putting the Patriots in the awkward position of having to defend against Manning and NFL's top-ranked offense, a move that could very well have been a self-inflicted wound. But it was clear that Belichick had opted to have the wind at his back because of how the gusts, which reached up to 20 or more miles per hour, had affected the game.
"The wind, it was a strong wind," Belichick explained. "We just had to keep them out of the end zone, obviously. I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. We were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game, it was definitely significant."
The Patriots were able to hold the Broncos in OT twice before their special teams error gave way to Gostkowski's game-winning kick.
“The wind was pretty good and anytime the temperature is lower and the wind is higher, the harder it is to kick," Gostkowski said. "Luckily we had the wind behind our back on that last kick. Obviously you could tell, kickoffs going one way were going five yards out of the end zone and they were going to the 10 [yard line] the other way. It’s tough, but it was a lot of fun. Ryan [Allen] and Danny [Aiken] did a great job on the last kick, the line obviously blocked really well. It was just sweet. Definitely going to enjoy this one for a couple days.”
2. Wes Welker's return minimized -- The former Patriots receiver caught four passes for 31 yards, but he'll more likely be remembered for dropping a pass on third and 8 in overtime that would've given the Broncos a first down and field goal position, and then failing to step up to catch the muffed punt.
"I felt like there was a lot of traffic and it was a high ball," Welker said of the game's fateful play. "I didn’t want to get into a situation where someone was running into me or something else, and I ended up with the situation I didn’t want to happen in the first place. I have to do a better job of getting up there and getting those guys out of the way and making sure it doesn’t hit them."
Patriots punter Ryan Allen said he tried his best to let the ball hang, making it more difficult on the Broncos' return game. The hanging punt certainly created this situation, where Welker's decision-making was more prominent in his first return to Foxborough than any heroics.
3. Julian Edelman's two big plays -- Edelman's playmaking ability was on display Sunday night. His 14-yard catch and run for a touchdown was simply magnificent. He finished with nine receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns. It was his third career 100-yard game and second two-touchdown game of the season.
"He's been so dependable and consistent all year for our team," quarterback Tom Brady said. "He’s been the one veteran player on the offense who’s been in there and been around. He did a great job. He always does a great job. He’s tough, smart and disciplined. It’s fun to see him do well because he deserves it."
4. Run defense -- What will likely be forgotten in the glow of this Patriots comeback victory will be the team's horrendous run defense, which allowed 280 yards on the ground. Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards and a touchdown. It wasn't just that he was making Patriots defenders miss, but he was seeing gaping holes in that Patriots front seven. That has to be corrected.
5. The curious case of Stevan Ridley -- The man is down on himself. Unlike many of his peers, after a poor outing, he stood near his locker and talked almost endlessly about how sick and frustrated he was with himself after another costly fumble. This one, his fourth of the season, was scooped up and returned for a 60-yard touchdown. It was the first of three straight Patriots turnovers that led to the Broncos' 24-0 lead. And as with each Ridley fumble, he found himself permanently attached to the Patriots sideline, left to ponder his place on the team.
"When I put the ball on the ground, they have no option but to take me out," Ridley said. "It's sick man. I'm frustrated. But it's part of the game. I think that as a player you're going to have your ups and downs, but the main thing is you to have just stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize. I'm not going to get too far down, but put some pressure on myself and go out there in practice and try to change up some things because I can't keep doing this. It's sickening."
He did say that the night could have been worse for him had the Patriots lost, but he was able to cheer on his fellow teammates and running backs.
"Absolutely. I think the big thing was that we fought back from a 24-point lead," Ridley said. "For our team, it says a lot about the guys that we have here and the caliber of team that we are. For me, I wouldn't be a team player if I wasn't out there rooting. If we ended up with a loss on top of all this, I think my night would've been that much worse.
"But at the same time I know that there are some things that I have to go in there and change and fix if I'm going to be there for this team down the road like they're leaning on me to be. And It's frustrating and it's sickening but it's part of the game and I just have to keep pushing for it and keep working hard. That's really all I can do."
After a LeGarrette Blount fumble, Brandon Bolden stepped in at running back and had 58 yards on 13 carries.