FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — How did they do it?
That’s the question that a lot of people wanted answered Monday. How did the New England Patriots come back from 24 down to beat Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime on a frigid Sunday night at Gillette Stadium?
Maybe you turned the game off at the half, or earlier. Maybe you fell asleep and didn’t see the three touchdown passes by Tom Brady in the second half, Manning’s clutch drive in the final minutes of regulation, the botched punt by the Broncos in overtime and Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning 31-yard field goal. Maybe you, like a lot of other folks, kept watching and simply couldn’t believe what you were seeing unfold.
How did they do it?
We’ve asked that question before of Brady and these Patriots. Time and again over his career, he has somehow pulled out an improbable victory. Thirty-nine times, in fact, he’s pulled out a game in the fourth quarter or overtime. But this one? This one might be the most unlikely.
Down 24-0 at the half? To Peyton Manning? To the NFL’s most fearsome offense?
So how did they do it?
In a happy but subdued locker room, the Patriots spoke of one thing: Belief. In each other. In themselves. In the system. In their coaches.
That’s the essence of football. You’ve got to believe that your teammates — the guys next to you, behind you, in front of you — are going to do their job. You just have to do yours.
You’ve got to believe that your coach, Bill Belichick, is going to make the right decisions, even if that means taking the wind at your back, instead of the ball, to start the overtime.
And when that happens, when everything clicks, that’s when things like Sunday night’s comeback happen.
That’s when guys like Dane Fletcher, a back-up linebacker who missed all of 2012 after suffering a knee injury in the final preseason game, can introduce himself to a national audience with a bone-rattling tackle that forced a Montee Ball fumble that swung the momentum decisively in New England’s favor early in the third quarter.
That’s when guys like Nate Ebner, a relatively-unknown second-year special teams player, can make the biggest play of his life and say it was nothing special because he was simply doing what he’s taught to do every day in practice.
“It’s fun when people play well and it’s even more fun when the whole team can enjoy it, when everybody has a chance to contribute,” said Gostkowski. “That’s what brings teams together, wins like that. At least I feel that way.
“You’ve been in games where the offense plays well and the defense doesn’t, or the defense plays well and the offense doesn’t, or the special teams play well and someone else doesn’t. But when everybody contributes, everybody can share a piece in (the win). That’s what football is all about. It’s the ultimate team sport and tough to win without everybody playing well.”
Even down 24-0 to Manning, the Patriots believed they could win because they are unwilling to accept any other outcome.
“As long as there’s still time left on that clock, we’re going to fight,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “No matter what the deficit is, no matter how insurmountable the odds might seem to be to anyone on the outside looking in, we know the character of the guys in this locker room and we’re going to battle.”
To a man, the Patriots said their was no panic in the locker room a the half. No shouting. No finger pointing. Being down 24-0 to anyone, let alone Manning, is daunting. But the Patriots knew they could do better, that they had to do better.
“Some things don’t need to be said,” said defensive stalwart Rob Ninkovich. “Sometimes hot air doesn’t get anything motivated. You just have to look at yourself and say that wasn’t good enough.
“The first half? That’s not us, that’s not how we need to play,” he continued. “I think in the second half we made the choice that we had to play Patriot football and go out there and win the game.”
Ebner, not accustomed to the media swarm that descended upon his locker, spoke simply of doing his job as well as he could.
The Patriots had been forced to punt on their second possession of overtime. Rookie Ryan Allen nailed a high, long kick with the wind at his back toward former Patriot Wes Welker. As the ball came down, Walker made a motion for his teammates to disperse, that he wasn’t going to catch the ball. It came too late and the ball bounced off Tony Carter. Ebner dove on it and the Patriots had the ball in position to win.’
“Everybody jumped on me pretty quickly, but I was just doing what I’m supposed to do in that situation,” he said. “Your instincts take over. I don’t want to make too much of it. I was just covering down on the punts like I always do.
“The punt returner was waving it off. (Patriot) Marquice Cole made a great play, pushing his guy (Carter) into the ball and I was just watching. The ball hit (Carter), I fell on it. Just right place at the right time.”
It’s more than that, of course.
It’s doing your job, and believing your teammates will do theirs.
“It comes down to being mentally tough and playing situational football,” said Ninkovich. “When you have a close game like that, it comes down to one thing, one mistake, that can cost you the game. Towards the end, they made the mistake and the ball hit one of their players. It gave us the ball close to field goal range for Stephen. (The ball) goes through the uprights. We win the game.”
And that’s how they did it.
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:[email protected]Twitter: MikeLowePPH