FOXBOROUGH — In a game that featured 65 points, 852 yards of offense, and a pair of quarterbacks headed to the Hall of Fame, it might seem strange to single out the Patriots’ defense.
But after being dealt a tough hand to start the game, the defense kept the league’s top-scoring team in check, an almost-forgotten component in a game that started on Sunday night and didn’t end until Monday morning.
Just when it looked like the Broncos were going to gallop out of Gillette Stadium with a dominant statement win, the Patriots found a way to claw back with a 21-point third quarter, then win the game in overtime.
After falling behind, 24-0, in the second quarter, the Patriots wouldn’t have reclaimed the momentum without keeping the Broncos off the scoreboard. No easy feat against quarterback Peyton Manning and a dangerous fleet of receivers, including former Patriot Wes Welker.
But that’s exactly what happened. Over a span of five drives — starting with the Broncos ahead, 24-0 — the Patriots held Denver scoreless. By the time they got the ball back for a sixth time, the Patriots were leading, 31-24, midway through the fourth quarter.
Denver forced overtime with a late touchdown, but it was the play of the defense for nearly two full quarters that helped get the Patriots back in the game and orchestrate the largest comeback in team history.
“They deserve a ton of credit: [Aqib] Talib, [Kyle] Arrington, [Devin] McCourty, Duron Harmon, Marquice [Cole] was in there at the end,” said coach Bill Belichick, mentioning some of his defensive secondary. “They just went out there and competed against a great group of receivers. They made some plays, but we did, too.”
The Patriots’ defense will be pegged with giving up 31 points, but that wasn’t the case. Von Miller returned a Stevan Ridley fumble 60 yards for a touchdown on the Patriots’ first drive, and a strip-sack of Tom Brady set the Broncos up at the 10-yard line, which Denver punched in for a touchdown. Yet another fumble in Patriots territory, this one by LeGarrette Blount, gave the Broncos a short field again, which led to a field goal.
The Broncos had just two lengthy scoring drives against the Patriots’ defense. They went 70 yards on seven plays — Manning hitting Jacob Tamme from 10 yards — to push the lead to 24-0 with 6:10 left in the second quarter. At that point, more than a few fans opted for the warmth of their cars over sitting in a frigid stadium watching their team get manhandled.
Over the next five drives, though, the Patriots held the Broncos to only 78 yards. Included in that were three punts and a pair of pivotal turnovers. The first, a fumble forced by Dane Fletcher and recovered by Brandon Spikes, led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Brandon Bolden to cut the deficit to 24-14. The second, an interception by Logan Ryan, came on the second play of the fourth quarter. It followed a third Patriots touchdown in the third quarter, and helped give them their first lead.
Things had turned around so thoroughly for the Patriots that prior to the Broncos’ final drive of regulation, Manning was in danger of his lowest passing yardage total of his career. He finished with 150, a number the Patriots likely would have taken at the start of the game.
Denver’s offensive star was Knowshon Moreno, who became the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2002 to rush for at least 200 yards against the Patriots. Moreno lugged it 37 times for 224 yards and a touchdown.
Moreno got his yards, but Manning didn’t. It’s a trade-off the Patriots didn’t mind making, thanks to a defense that played well when it needed to. Denver was spotted 24 points, but on this windy, wacky night, it simply wasn’t enough.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.