FOXBORO, Mass. -- In the giddy postgame locker room, a procession of Patriots kept trying to find new and inventive ways to say the same thing: They had no precedent for what they had just participated in, and what the rest of us had witnessed: A 34-31 New England victory over Denver in overtime, in a game the Patriots trailed 24-0 at halftime.
It was the largest comeback in New England history, and the strange and epic affair was decided in weird fashion, with Denver reserve cornerback Tony Carter committing a crushing special-teams mistake, letting a New England punt glance off him and be recovered at the Broncos' 13-yard line, setting up the game-winning, 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 1:56 left in the extra period.
"I guess the football gods got tired of watching us, man,'' Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib said. "They gave us a great bounce, and we'll take it. Somebody missed their button at [Buffalo] Wild Wings, I guess. But we'll take it. There are two halves of a football game, 60 minutes. And we're not going to quit after 30 minutes.''
The Broncos and Patriots, of course, actually endured more like 73 minutes of football in this instant classic, played in frosty, windy conditions at Gillette Stadium, and when it was over, the latest and perhaps most memorable matchup in the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry was as quirky as they come.
"I've seen a lot of football over the years, but I've never seen a game quite like that one,'' Patriots team president Jonathan Kraft said in the locker room. "That was unbelievable.''
The collection of firsts rolled up in this game were remarkable. Try wrapping your mind around this statistic: Before Sunday night, Manning had never lost a game in which he led by at least 22 points, going 50-0 in the regular season in that scenario, and 2-0 in the playoffs. So 52-0 with that type of three-touchdown-plus lead, and for all places for that streak to end, it comes here, in Manning's personal House of Horrors, against Brady, his longtime nemesis.
The Patriots previous largest comeback win was a 23-point rally in September 1984, when New England trailed Seattle 23-0 but won going away 38-23. There would be no such cushion against Manning and the Broncos, even if the Patriots needed just 16:47 of the second half to wipe out Denver's 24-0 advantage and grab a stunning 28-24 lead early in the fourth quarter. Brady was a cool 12-of-14 for 163 yards passing and two touchdowns in the third quarter, when New England scored three touchdowns and sliced the Broncos lead to 24-21.
One more first bears mentioning: It was the coldest Patriots home game in Gillette Stadium history, with a temperature of 22 degrees at kickoff, and whipping 22 mph winds that produced a six-degree wind chill.
"What a crazy game and what a fun finish,'' Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "It was unbelievable. It was a lot of fun to be a part of and a great team win overall. But it was like 5 degrees out there with that wind chill. But we've been down many times at halftime by a lot, and you've got to play four quarters of football. That was a pretty brutal first half, maybe one of the worst I've ever been a part of. It was bad.''
The Patriots lost fumbles on their first three possessions of the game, to trail 17-0 in the first quarter, and were booed off the field at halftime. But Brady threw three touchdown passes in the second half, and New England scored on its first five drives of the second half, taking a 31-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Broncos rallied to tie on Manning's pretty 11-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas with 3:06 remaining in regulation, but three turnovers after halftime doomed Denver (9-2) to its second loss of the season and left Manning once again playing second fiddle to Brady and the Patriots.
We keep billing it as the best quarterback rivalry in NFL history, but Brady keeps making sure it's pretty one-sided. It's 10-4 now in Brady's favor, and No. 12 had by far the better night, completing 34-of-50 passes for 344 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 107.4 passer rating.
Manning turned in his worst game of the season, throwing for just 150 yards on 19-of-34 passing, with two touchdowns, one interception and a 70.4 rating. While he bizarrely came close to registering a fourth-quarter comeback win, Manning was strangely not the focus of Denver's offensive gameplan. The Broncos ran a whopping 48 times, for 280 yards, with Knowshon Moreno gaining a career-best 224 yards on 37 runs, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, with a touchdown.
"The weather conditions helped us out a little bit,'' Talib said. "But that was our plan, to get him [Manning] to run it more than he threw it. That wind played a big factor, a huge factor in the game. A lot of deep balls kind of hung up in the air going toward the lighthouse [end of the field, against the wind]. It changes what you can do as a quarterback.''
The Broncos in overtime were about five yards or so away from a potential game-winning Matt Prater field goal try, driving to the New England 37 on their second possession, but Wes Welker dropped a 3rd-and-8 pass and they punted the ball back to the Patriots. Five plays later, New England's punt bounced off Carter as Welker was waving his teammates away from the ball, and New England was gifted ideal field position for Gostkowski's game winner.
"Obviously the running game was hot,'' Manning said. "The gameplan is to move the ball and we were moving the ball and running the ball. Knowshon was hot, so we were riding him. When you're running the ball, that's a good thing for the offense. When you turn it over and give them two short fields, that's disappointing. That's not good execution. That's kind of the way that worked out.''
Everything wound up working out for New England in the end, even head coach Bill Belichick's somewhat controversial decision to kick to the Broncos at the start of overtime, taking the wind over the ball in the NFL's relatively new overtime format, where only a touchdown ends the game in sudden death on the first possession. The Patriots defense backed up their coach's move, forcing a Broncos punt on their first drive, and another one later in the 15-minute overtime.
"Great decision,'' Gronkowski said of Belichick's call. "He's our coach and we're behind him with everything. Whatever he has, we're behind him. And it was a great call because we won.''
Once again, the Patriots found a way to rally and win a game they had no right to still be in. Much like they did in Week 6 at home against the Saints, when they notched a miracle 30-27 victory against New Orleans on a last-second Brady-led touchdown drive, the Patriots persevered in the face of a seemingly insurmountable deficit. New England (8-3) improved to 6-0 at home this season, and in the process proved it can stay on the field with Denver, the record-setting No. 1 ranked offensive team in the NFL this season and the favorite to win the AFC's top playoff seed.
Instead of Manning and Welker stealing the spotlight Sunday night, it was Brady and that Welker clone, Julian Edelman, whose nine-catch, 110-yard, two-touchdown performance out-did the former Patriots slot receiver who was making his celebrated return to Gillette Stadium. Welker caught just four passes for 31 yards, and wasn't the difference-maker for Denver that he had long been for New England.
It was a long, strange night of football, but it ended in familiar fashion at least in one aspect: the Patriots made the plays that decided the outcome, and reminded the rest of the AFC that they will be heard from once again come playoff time. Aren't they always?
"It was big,'' New England cornerback Devin McCourty said of the win. "It's [against] a team on top of the AFC. I mean, it was the Broncos: Peyton, Brady, everything, on Sunday Night Football. These are the games you want to come out and win. We didn't come out and play well in the first half, but all year this team has shown how tough we are, and there is no quit in anyone.
"In the locker room [at halftime], we came in and it wasn't a big going crazy [display]. It was, 'We've got to play.' We dug ourselves a hole, and now let's just play and see what happens.''
We saw. And most of what we saw, we had never seen anything quite like it before. Even by Brady-Manning standards, it was a show that will be difficult to ever repeat, or top.