FOXBOROUGH — The hideous opening scenes will be lost in the buzz of the greatest comeback in franchise history against their most prominent individual rival, and that’s how it should be.
Unless you decided a decent night’s sleep or beating traffic was a superior option to watching the Patriots’ sure-to-be-hopeless attempt to rally from a self-inflicted 24-0 deficit Sunday night, well, this is a day for giddiness and heightened hopes and trying and trying again to believe what you just saw the night before.
“What a crazy game,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski after the Patriots’ 34-31 overtime victory over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium. “It was unbelievable, so fun to be a part of.”
Stephen Gostkowski‘s 31-yard field goal in overtime provided the official margin of victory after Nate Ebner recovered a misplayed punt by former Patriot Tony Carter. Suddenly, a February trip to New York seems like a reasonable possibility for this football team.
“That was a heck of an effort by our players. I’m really proud of the way they fought back,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was downright loquacious by his usual standards after the game.
“You spot a team like Denver 24 points — we just took it one play at a time, kept fighting all the way through,” Belichick said. “We say, ‘play 60 minutes.’ It took a lot more than that tonight. I’m really proud of the way they played, they way they hung in there. It certainly wasn’t a very good first half, in any area, but we just stuck it out and in the end kept making some plays.”
The comeback is credited to the whole, of course, but it was it ever marked by brilliant individual performances. Julian Edelman out-Welkered prodigal son Wes Welker, catching 9 passes for 111 yards and scoring the Patriots’ first touchdown, then a second that gave them their first lead at 28-24.
Tom Brady submitted a vintage performance in frigid conditions, completing 34 of 50 passes for 354 yards — his 56th career 300-yard game, fifth all-time — and three touchdowns.
Gronkowski, obviously back at full Gronk Strength after offseason surgeries, had seven catches for 90 yards, pummeled Broncos defensive backs like they were his kid brother. He also offered his usual stellar work as a blocker, particularly for Brandon Bolden (58 yards, one TD, no fumbles), who took over for Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount after both coughed up the football and became personas non grata for the remainder of the night.
At least they had good seats for the show. Oh yes, this was one to savor, something even Belichick admitted after it was all said and done.
“We’ll enjoy this one for a little while — a couple hours anyway,” he deadpanned.
To fully appreciate the comeback, revisiting that mess of a first quarter is required. The play clock, game clock and Patriots offense all malfunctioned, and you just wished they could reset all of them to 15 minutes and start over.
The Patriots lost three fumbles in the first quarter alone, essentially leading directly to 17 unanswered Denver points. Ridley, who has now put the ball on the ground in three straight games and could be relegated to the Hamilton Tiger Cats by the time you read this, coughed up a fumble a little more than five minutes into the game. The Broncos’ Von Miller scooped it up and took it 60 yards for the game’s first points.
Exactly two minutes later, the Broncos had a 14-0 lead. Knowshon Moreno, who would run 37 times for 224 yards — 74 more yards than Manning had passing on the evening — plunged in from 2 yards out two plays after Miller buried Brady to force a fumble.
Matt Prater made it 17-0 with a 27-yard field goal after Blount’s fumble handed the ball back to the Broncos again and bought him a seat on the bench next to Ridley, the Leonard Russell Memorial No-Hands Team in exiled tandem.
When Denver scored again on a Manning-to-Jacob Tamme 10-yard scoring pass with 6:07 left in the half, those who decided to hang on for the second half searched for a clue that it might be fulfilling. The rally from a 31-3 deficit against the eventual NFC champion 49ers last year seemed to offer some hope, but still lost the game.
The Patriots’ 49-21 win over the Bills to close out the 2011 regular season could have been a beacon of optimism — the Patriots were down 21-0 in that one — but that occurred against Ryan Fitzpatrick, not Manning and the 9-1 Broncos.
And then there was this bit of cold water on a freezing night:
Over past 50 years, teams are 5-485 when trailing by 24+ at halftime
— Jeremy Lundblad (@JLundbladESPN) November 25, 2013
The Patriots were 0-for-17 when trailing by such a margin. Again: were. Somehow, despite the incredible self-inflicted degree of difficulty, they ripped off 31 straight points — Edelman TD, Bolden TD, Gronk TD, Edelman TD, Gostkowski 31-yard field goal — in the first 22:23 of the second half to take the lead.
“One minute we were down 24-0, the next minute we were kicking the game-winning field goal,” said Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. “It went fast, man. Defense made plays, offense made plays, and we were kicking the field goal.”
It wasn’t quite that linear. Denver did score with a little more than three minutes left to tie it, Manning hitting Demaryius Thomas on a fade pattern for an 11-yard touchdown. And there were some curious twists in overtime, particularly when Belichick elected to take the wind and kick off to start the extra frame.
But in the end, it all worked, or worked enough for that 24-0 hole to become part of NFL lore. Let the record show that NFL teams are now 6-485 after trailing by 24 or more points at halftime.
The Patriots came back, somehow, some way, and in the aftermath it’s impossible not to consider what else they might conjure along the way.
If they can do that, against Peyton and them, what might they do when they inevitably meet again?