FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The matchup of great quarterbacks turned into a game of turnovers.
And the New England Patriots won both.
Tom Brady outplayed Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos made the biggest mistake and the Patriots won 34-31 on Stephen Gostkowski’s 31-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime Sunday night.
New England lost fumbles on each of its first three possessions and trailed 24-0 at halftime.
“If someone walks up to you and hits you in the face,” Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said, “I mean, what type person are you? Do you just turn and walk away or are you going to fight back?”
They fought back.
Brady threw three touchdown passes as New England scored on its first five possessions of the second half and took a 31-24 lead. Then the Broncos tied it when Manning threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Demaryius Thomas with 3:06 left in the fourth quarter.
Both teams punted on each of their first two possessions of overtime. But the last one, a high punt by New England’s Ryan Allen, landed and bounced off the leg of Denver backup cornerback Tony Carter. Nate Ebner recovered for the Patriots at the Broncos 13 and, three plays later, Gostkowski won the game with his 21st consecutive successful field goal attempt.
“What a crazy game,” he said, “and what a fun finish.”
Here are five things we learned from the Patriots comeback win over the NFL’s best offensive team:
BRADY STILL ON TOP: In 14 meetings between two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Brady is 10-4 after beating Manning for the third straight time.
Brady had one of his best games this season, completing 34 of 50 passes for 344 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Manning had one of his worst, connecting on 19 of 36 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“It would be wrong if guys aren’t disappointed or bothered by this loss,” Manning said.
PLAYOFF PUZZLE: The Patriots took a step toward a first-round playoff bye in a conference that had been dominated by AFC West powers Denver and Kansas City. New England (8-3) has the second best record among AFC division leaders, while Denver and Kansas City (9-2) share their division lead. But those two will meet for the second time in three weeks next Sunday in Kansas City. The Patriots’ remaining five opponents have losing records. They were helped Sunday by Indianapolis’ 40-11 loss to Arizona that left the Colts atop the AFC South at 7-4.
BRONCOS BEST ON GROUND: Denver running back Knowshon Moreno gained a career high 224 yards on 37 carries with one touchdown.
“The game plan was to do whatever they were giving us,” Moreno said. “We were able to run the ball. The offensive line was doing a great job blocking.”
New England running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount were benched after they lost fumbles in the first half. But Brandon Bolden stepped in and rushed for 58 yards on 13 carries with one touchdown.
“He gave us some quality plays, ran hard, broke some tackles,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s a good back. All of our backs have been productive for us.”
WELKER RETURNS: The scene was the same, the production was subpar. Wes Welker, who caught more than 110 passes in five of his six seasons with the Patriots and entered with 61 receptions, faced his former team for the first time since signing as a free agent with Denver. He had just four catches for 31 yards and was the punt returner who decided to let the ball drop in front of him before Carter ran into it.
Before the game, he hugged Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Afterward, he talked with Belichick.
“It was a little different,” Welker said. “It was great seeing Mr. Kraft and I have a lot of respect for him as a man and as an owner of a team. He’s a good one.”
SPREADING IT AROUND: After a bad first half, Brady started spreading the ball around. Julian Edelman had nine catches, Shane Vereen had eight, Rob Gronkowski grabbed seven and Kenbrell Thompkins added six. Edelman scored twice and Gronkowski once.
“Coach preaches to be a tough, smart football team and we weren’t playing like that in the first half,” Edelman said.
So in the second half, “you looked at everyone in the huddle and everyone was all business,” he said.