FOXBOROUGH — In all of the scenarios and possibilities Bill Belichick dreamed up and schemed up for his Patriots in the days leading up to their Sunday night meeting with the Denver Broncos, it is highly unlikely he saw things unfolding the way they did in the first half of the game.
And for that matter, Belichick may not have been able to draw up a second half like the one that unfolded, either.
Or, as it turned out, overtime.
Down by four scores when the second half began, the Patriots staged a comeback that seemed improbable two hours earlier, with a 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 1:56 remaining in OT giving New England a 34-31 win.
In overtime, Wes Welker called for a fair catch on Ryan Allen’s punt, but the ball hit the ground and bounced off the Broncos’ Tony Carter. The Patriots’ Nate Ebner recovered at the Denver 13 and two plays later, Gostkowski kicked the winner.
“Strong wind,’’ Belichick said, when asked why he chose to kick off in OT. “We just had to keep them out of the end zone, obviously, felt wind would be advantage if we could keep them out of end zone on the first drive, and we did that.’’
It was the first time in the storied Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry a game had gone to overtime, and the first time in Manning’s career that he lost a game he led by 22 or more points (He came into the night 50-0 in the regular season in those situations and 2-0 in the playoffs). The Patriots had been 0-17 when trailing by 24 or more points at halftime.
“We took it one play at a time, we kept fighting all the way through,” said Belichick. “Proud of the way they played, way they hung in there. It wasn’t a good first half in any area, but we stuck it out. We’ll enjoy this one.”
Facing a 24-0 hole after two quarters, the Patriots scored 31 straight points, taking a 28-24 lead on a 14-yard Julian Edelman touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter, a score set up by a Logan Ryan interception.
As receiver Eric Decker slid to corral a low pass from Manning, Ryan got in front of the receiver and claimed his second pickoff of the season.
Starting well inside Denver territory, Brady followed up a short carry by Brandon Bolden with a 15-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski, then hit Edelman to his right.
Edelman cut inside his defender, slipped past a couple of other Broncos, and dived over the goal line. It was his second touchdown of the night.
A three-and-out from the defense and a long punt return by Edelman put the Patriots’ offense back in business near midfield, and though New England stalled in the red zone, it still got a 31-yard field goal from Gostkowski to increase its lead to 31-24 with 7:37 to play.
But the Broncos stopped the bleeding long enough to tie the game on the ensuing possession. They needed a bit of luck, as an Aqib Talib interception on first down was wiped out by a holding call against Talib.
Knowshon Moreno’s 18-yard run put the Broncos on New England’s half of the field, and an 11-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas — his first catch of the night — got them closer.
A holding penalty on tackle Chris Clark left the Broncos with second and 20, but a second completion to Thomas, this one for 15 yards, then an 11-yard gain to tight end Jacob Tamme kept things moving.
Rob Ninkovich was flagged for pass interference, his first penalty of the season, on third and 7, and what had been an incomplete pass to Tamme became a fresh set of downs at the 11 for Denver.
Manning then found Thomas along the left sideline of the end zone for the touchdown.
Moreno finished 224 rushing yards, the first player to go over 200 against the Patriots since the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson did it on Sept. 29, 2002.
New England turned the ball over on its first three possessions, and all of them led to Denver points.
Things didn’t get much better as the Patriots went into halftime trailing, 24-0, the first time they were shut out in the first half of a game since Dec. 24, 2011, against Miami.
After the New England defense forced a punt on the opening series of the game, the offense was making progress and was in Broncos territory for a second-down play, a handoff to Stevan Ridley up the middle.
Ridley tried to spin away from linebacker Wesley Woodyard, but Woodyard got his helmet on the nose of the ball as Ridley made his move, and the ball popped out.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller scooped it up and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown.
It was the second time this season a Ridley fumble has been taken back for a score; it also happened in Buffalo in Week 1. Ridley didn’t play again against the Bills, and he wasn’t seen again in the first half Sunday night.
Ridley also fumbled against Pittsburgh and last Monday night against the Panthers.
Ridley slammed his helmet on the bench after his fumble, and spent the rest of the half in a team parka, pacing the sideline with his helmet off.
Shortly after his miscue, the in-house videoboard showed a shot of him, and he was booed by the Gillette Stadium crowd.
But he wasn’t the only Patriot who had trouble holding onto the ball.
Moments later, Miller blew past left tackle Nate Solder and whacked Brady from behind, stripping him. This time, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton recovered the fumble.
The big man didn’t get to the end zone, tackled 10 yards from paydirt. Moreno did get the touchdown two plays later.
Right tackle Marcus Cannon was injured on Miller’s strip-sack and was replaced by Will Svitek.
The ball-security problems went from problematic to ridiculous a few plays later.
LeGarrette Blount got the ball on first down from the New England 35 and was drilled by safety Duke Ihenacho and Woodyard after a 9-yard gain.
Blount lost the ball and it was recovered by Denver’s Danny Trevathan. Trevathan’s return was negated after review, but the turnover was upheld.
The Patriots stopped the Broncos in the red zone, but they were still down, 17-0, with barely 12 minutes off the clock.
Blount did not see the field again in the first half, either.
Not to be outdone, Edelman fumbled twice on the same second-quarter punt return, recovering the ball himself the first time, with rookie Michael Buchanan saving him the second time.
And it wasn’t just the players who were having problems working in the cold — the play clock, game clock, and down-and-distance board were all malfunctioning at one point. Time had to be kept on the field until the problem was resolved.