This was one of those nights when reality exceeded hype. Sunday Night Football. Patriots vs. Broncos. Brady vs. Manning. AFC supremacy -- with all due respect to the Chiefs, Colts and Bengals -- on the line. Wes Welker's return. How could anything possibly live up to all that? Well, it did.
First, we'll cut to the chase: The Patriots defeated the Broncos, 34-31, when Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 31-yard field goal with 1:56 to play in overtime. Now. As to how it happened . . .
The Broncos put New England in a 24-0 hole -- a hole the Patriots dug, and then jumped into, with three turnovers on their first three possessions, which Denver turned into 17 points -- in the first half. Then Tom Brady came out and added to his Hall of Fame resume, completing 18 of his first 23 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns as he led the Pats all the way back and then some. They scored on five straight possessions for a 31-24 lead with about 7 1/2 minutes to go.
Then Peyton Manning, whose performance had paled in comparison to Brady's to this point, put together a 10-play, 75-yard drive that tied the game with 3:06 left and forced overtime. Then when the Patriots won the coin toss before the o.t. period, they chose to kick so they could have the wind -- not inconsequential on a blustery, wintry night -- and opened themselves to reams of second-guessing by giving Manning and the Broncos the first chance to win the game.
The decision ended up an afterthought -- the Pats forced a punt -- but then we had the obligatory controversial call when Broncos DB Quentin Jammer got away with what seemed like interference on Kenbrell Thompkins, aborting a Pats' drive and leading to a New England punt.
And then, just when you thought you'd seen it all . . . The Pats were forced to punt again with just over three minutes to go and a tie looming. But as Welker yelled for his Bronco teammates to let it drop, the ball hit Denver's Tony Carter on its descent. Nate Ebner recovered for the Pats on the Denver 13, setting up an almost unmissable Gostkowski field goal.
And miss it he didn't. After Brady ran a couple of sneaks to get the ball in position, Gostkowski drilled it home from 31 yards out, giving the Patriots an incredible victory.
"We had a lot of guys [who] are heroes tonight," said coach Bill Belichick. "It’s a great night to be a part of recognizing the military and Veterans' Day and just the whole what we’ve gone through in the last few weeks, relative to the league recognizing all those things and President Kennedy’s 50th anniversary assassination the other day and all that. It was good to be a part of all that good, be on the winning end of it. . . [We'll] enjoy this one for a little while – a couple hours anyway."
But it'll be remembered for a whole lot longer. It was the greatest comeback for a victory in Patriots' history, and the Pats became only the sixth team in the last 50 years to win a game after trailing by 24 or more points at halftime.