By Gregory Hunt
Whenever a regular season NFL game receives as much hype as Sunday night’s Broncos/Patriots game did, it often seems as if the actual game is anti-climatic. This one, however, may have exceeded the hype.
In the greatest comeback in franchise history, the New England Patriots overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit to earn a 34-31 overtime victory over the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. The win gave New England a three-game lead in the AFC East and put the team in a good position to earn a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. In NFL history, it was only the sixth time in 491 games that a team had won a game after trailing 24-0 at halftime.
Offense Grade: B
If running back Stevan Ridley is still a Patriot by the time you read this, he can consider himself a very lucky man. His first-quarter fumble was returned 60 yards for a touchdown by Denver linebacker Von Miller, and it was the first of New England’s three first-quarter turnovers. It was Ridley’s fourth lost fumble of the season, and he never returned to the game after that play.
But to be fair to Ridley, some of the blame must be placed on the offensive line, which had protection problems much of the night, especially against Miller. On Ridley’s fumble, a breakdown on the right side of the line led to Ridley getting hit much earlier than he anticipated. On New England’s second fumble, quarterback Tom Brady lost the ball after getting hit on his blind side by Miller, who beat left tackle Nate Solder cleanly. Miller beat Solder again for another sack in the second quarter; but Brady hung onto the ball that time.
Remarkably, as bad as the Patriots offense looked in the first half, they looked incredibly efficient in the second half, scoring 31 unanswered points to take a 31-24 lead before Denver scored late in regulation to force overtime. Taking advantage of an injury to Denver cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was hurt on the final play of the first half, Brady threw three touchdown passes the rest of the way and he ended up throwing for 344 yards. Wide receiver Julian Edelman caught two of those touchdowns and he finished with nine catches overall for 110 yards.
Defense Grade: B+
Thanks to the incredibly cold and windy conditions in Foxboro on this night, it was expected that Denver would first try to establish its running game, but the Patriots still couldn’t keep Denver running back Knowshon Moreno from gaining huge chunks of yardage. Moreno had already gained more than 100 yards by halftime, which is quite an accomplishment given that Denver came into the game ranked only 20th in the NFL in rushing offense. Moreno eventually finished with 224 yards rushing.
But while giving up the run, New England was successful in keeping Denver’s Peyton Manning from beating them through the air. Manning threw for only 150 yards, his lowest single-game total of the season. The high winds were certainly a factor, but they didn’t seem to slow down Brady very much. An interception by cornerback Logan Ryan early in the fourth quarter set up New England’s go-ahead touchdown, and even though Denver eventually forced overtime, New England never trailed after that.
Special Teams Grade: B
As a punt returner Edelman added to New England’s fumble woes by muffing a punt in the second, but it was recovered by defensive lineman Michael Buchanan.
The wind pretty much made the kicking game a non-factor for most of the game, but Ryan Allen’s 41-yard punt into the wind late in the second quarter was very impressive, and he finished with a 44.5 average on six punts. But the biggest plays on special teams were made by Marquice Cole and Nate Ebner, who both recovered muffed punts by Denver. Ebner’s recovery set up the winning Stephen Gostkowski field goal with two minutes remaining in overtime.
Coaching Grade: B
With less than a minute left in the first half, New England made the curious move of calling two time outs while deep in their own territory. Thus, instead of running out the clock, New England put themselves in a position where they needed to punt the ball into the wind with 15 seconds remaining. The Patriots were bailed out of a potential disaster when Cole subsequently recovered a muffed punt, but it was the second game in a row in which New England coaches mismanaged their time outs at the end of the first half.
But the best coaching decision of the night may have been when head coach Bill Belichick elected to kickoff after winning the coin toss at the beginning of overtime. It was a risky call, but one that paid off as Denver was never able to come close to field goal range in either of their overtime possessions going into the wind. By the time New England got a field goal opportunity, Gostkowski only needed to make an easy 31-yarder with the wind.
For more Patriots news and updates, visit Patriots Central.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.