FOXBOROUGH — The 13th meeting between future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Peyton Manning received plenty of hype over the past week, even as both men did their best to downplay the quarterback-vs.-quarterback story line.
The last five times the two had been on opposite sidelines in the same stadium, the result was always within 7 points or fewer.
And for a few moments Sunday afternoon, it looked like their meeting this year, with Manning now in the still-unfamiliar uniform of the Broncos instead of the Colts, would be no different.
A couple of fourth-quarter miscues by the Patriots put the game into nail-biting territory, but New England was able to hang on for a 31-21 win at Gillette Stadium.
And here’s something that hasn’t been said for a while, especially against Manning: the Patriots’ defense bailed out the offense.
After back-to-back fumbles, the first when New England oddly decided to go for it on fourth and 5 from the Denver 37 and saw Brady strip-sacked by Elvis Dumervil and the Broncos get the loose ball, and the second by Stevan Ridley, which marred an otherwise strong outing by the back, Denver was down by 10 points and driving to make it a 3-point game.
But then there was yet another fumble, this one by Denver running back Willis McGahee, caused by Rob Ninkovich and recovered by Jermaine Cunningham. It ended the threat, and allowed the Patriots to switch into clock-killing mode on offense and preserve the win.
“The fumble at the end of the game was on a draw play; I saw the running back step inside so I just followed him,’’ Ninkovich said. “I saw the ball in his right hand and tried to throw a hook at it.’’
Defensive captain Vince Wilfork praised the unit.
“It was big,’’ Wilfork said. “Being able to go out defensively, actually getting the turnover ourselves, that was a big statement for us. That’s two weeks in a row we’ve shown this defense can turnover and get the ball for our offense and our offense can score points.’’
“That fumble was a game-saver,’’ Brady said. “[The defense] has been getting turnovers all season and we have to do a better job protecting the football. But for the most part it was very good complementary football for us today.’’
It was the second forced fumble of the game for Ninkovich, who had a third-quarter strip sack in Denver territory that led to the Patriots’ final touchdown.
Ninkovich also made some big plays in Buffalo. After that game, as he did Sunday night, he talked about pressuring himself to do better after what he felt were subpar showings in the first three weeks of the season.
“I knew I was capable of making some big plays and being a guy that you can count on . . . the first couple of weeks I didn’t feel I was playing my style and the way I would like to play,’’ said Ninkovich, who noted that the switch from linebacker to defensive end may have impacted his earlier play.
For two-plus quarters, the Patriots played their no-huddle offense at a dizzying speed, allowing them to score on drives of 12 plays (TD), 14 plays (TD), 16 plays (field goal), and 16 plays (TD).
“We can go pretty fast at home if we communicate well,’’ Brady said, the implication being that at home the crowd is quiet when the offense is on the field.
“I think we tried to up-tempo it a little bit to keep them from substituting,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “They were able to substitute in at times, but at other times they couldn’t get them in. When they weren’t substituting, then we could get a little bit better idea of what they were going to do with the group that was in there. When they start subbing, it’s hard to tell exactly what group they’re getting into.
“They got in and out of some stuff like we expected they would, but we felt like the tempo helped us control the game a little bit.’’
The Patriots moved the ball so well that by the end of the victory they’d set a franchise record for first downs in a game with 35.
The defense, which last week came up with six turnovers, didn’t wait long to get back to its ball-hawking ways: on the eighth play of the game, with Denver at midfield, Manning found Demaryius Thomas for a 43-yard gain. But Sterling Moore popped the ball out, forcing a fumble, then recovered the ball himself.
Starting inside its 20, the offense didn’t do much with the opportunity, though keeping Manning out of the end zone is a win regardless.
The defense again had a nice play on Denver’s second possession, with Jerod Mayo blitzing through the middle of the line and going low on Manning for a 7-yard loss on third and 5.
New England got things rolling the second time around, running 10 of 12 plays out of the no-huddle. Ridley (151 yards) kept picking up chunks of yardage so Brady kept giving him the ball, though he also went to old reliable Wes Welker three times, including on the touchdown.
Brady looked right, pumped right, and then turned and found a fairly open Welker on the left side. The receiver took it in untouched for an 8-yard score, his first of the season.
Denver answered right back, helped in large part by a one-handed, 30-yard sideline grab by Thomas, who was the Broncos’ only big-play provider (nine catches, 188 yards).
After an end zone pass-interference call on Devin McCourty moved Denver ahead 20 yards, Manning hit tight end Joel Dreessen with the 1-yard score to tie the game.
The Patriots responded with a 14-play touchdown drive (Shane Vereen scoring on a 1-yard run) and then a 16-play, 93-yard drive for a field goal that let them take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
They would score 14 more points in the third quarter before the Broncos began to come back and make things interesting.
But it was the defense to the rescue.
“I think we played well together as a team,’’ Wilfork said. “All three units played very, very well. That’s how it’s going to have to be. If we want to be successful, we have to play like that.
“We have to play together as a team, 60 minutes, everybody doing their job and executing well.’’