Across the 31 other NFL cities, you could hear fans muttering to themselves Monday morning.
“[Expletive] Patriots. Again.”
It’s a hatred born out of respect and frustration. The bleeping Patriots once again are doing what the other 31 NFL teams can’t — overcoming injuries, rallying together late in games, and pulling off miracle comebacks.
The Patriots had another one Sunday night, erasing a 24-point deficit against the high-powered Broncos and winning, 34-31, in overtime thanks to a fluky fumble on a punt.
The comeback was stunning — the largest second-half deficit the Patriots have ever erased — but nothing should surprise NFL fans anymore when it comes to the Patriots of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They have been spectacularly consistent in an era of parity, on pace to win their 11th division title in 13 years.
For the last 13 seasons, no team consistently executes crucial plays, or creates their own luck, better than the Patriots. It’s what makes the Patriots so universally hated by the other 31 fan bases: They always seem to force that late-game fumble, or draw that crucial penalty, or convert that impossible third-and-long in the final minute.
Since 2003, they are now 33-4 following a loss. And they always seem to overcome adversity when most teams would wilt, as when trailing by 24 points in 6-degree wind chill.
Hopefully, fans have realized not to leave Gillette Stadium early, because seven of the Patriots’ 11 games this season have essentially come down to the final play. They have won four of them — kicking a last-second field goal against Buffalo, staving off a last-second drive by Atlanta, scoring a last-second miracle touchdown against New Orleans, and kicking an overtime field goal against Denver. They also erased a 17-3 halftime deficit to Miami and cruised to a 27-17 victory.
“We’ve been in some bad situations,” Belichick said. “We were down by  points to Miami, down to these [Denver] guys, behind at the end of the game against New Orleans, behind at the end of the game against Cincinnati, behind at the end of the game against Carolina. We’ve been able to hang in there, even when it hasn’t always looked great.”
All three of their losses have come down to the last play, as well. Brady’s final heave was intercepted in a loss to the Bengals, the Jets beat them with a field goal in overtime, and the Panthers scored in the final minute to win by 4. The Bengals loss was the only game in which the Patriots were soundly defeated — and that was a game in which the Patriots were missing Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Rob Gronkowski, and a downpour hit the stadium during New England’s final drive.
If not for an esoteric penalty that erased a missed field goal and handed the Jets an easier kick, and a questionable no-call on the Panthers that deprived the Patriots of one final play from the 1-yard line, the Patriots easily could be 10-1 and cruising to the No. 1 seed.
“These games, they come down to the end almost every week now,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. “You have to stay mentally tough and realize that you have to play to that final play.
“It’s a great way to win, for a team win as far as guys realizing that, ‘Hey, if everyone does their job, we’re going to win these games.’ ”
Sunday’s game was classic Patriots. On a frigid night when most teams would have packed it up at halftime, the Patriots found their groove and erased the Broncos’ lead in just 17 minutes of game time. They stood tough against Peyton Manning in overtime, then won the game when the ball just happened to bounce their way.
Of course, you tend to get lucky when you have a coach with enough foresight and chutzpah to take the wind in overtime instead of the football.
The wind prevented Manning from throwing long passes. The wind prevented the Broncos from attempting a 55-yard field goal in overtime. The wind knocked down Denver’s overtime punt after 22 yards. The wind also sent New England’s overtime punt swirling high into the night, making it tricky for Wes Welker to judge the ball. He didn’t fair catch it, he didn’t tell his teammates to clear away in time. The ball careened off Tony Carter, Nate Ebner recovered it at Denver’s 13, and that was all she wrote.
“Bill’s a genius,” safety Devin McCourty said. “I mean, even the captains didn’t know. We [were] like, ‘Defer? Take the wind?’ And it was obviously the best call, and it was a great call by him.”
That the Patriots are dominating again this year, and winning all of these tight ballgames, defies common sense and is a real kick in the teeth for the other 31 fan bases. This was supposed to be the Patriots’ down season. Remember when ESPN The Magazine predicted them to finish 9-7 and not make the playoffs? How quaint.
You’re not supposed to be 8-3 with the league’s No. 6 scoring offense, when you lose Welker and Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead in the offseason, and don’t have Gronkowski for six games, and lose right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a broken leg, and lose Vereen and Danny Amendola for significant stretches.
You’re not supposed to keep winning when you lose Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly to season-ending injuries, and when Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are in and out of the lineup, and you have seven backups playing on your defense in crucial moments on a Sunday night game against Peyton Manning.
“It’s a game of just staying power,” said Belichick. “You’ve seen all the players throughout the league that have gone down, that aren’t playing, that are on injured reserve and so forth. Every team is dealing with it. You have to have depth, you have to have guys to step up and replace guys.”
The Patriots are just one game behind the 9-2 Chiefs and Broncos for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. With an undaunting final stretch consisting of at Houston, vs. Cleveland, at Miami, at Baltimore, and vs. Buffalo, the Patriots could quite conceivably finish the season with 12 or 13 wins. The Patriots look like the favorites to win the AFC and reach the Super Bowl, as long as they can avoid any more significant injuries.
Hopefully Patriots fans realize that this is not how it works in the other 31 NFL cities. In Miami and Washington and Dallas and San Diego and many points in between, you watch the game waiting for your team’s inevitable doom. The thrills and last-minute ecstasy are occasional, and usually don’t last very long.
Only in New England do the good guys always seem to come out on top.
Down to the wire
The Patriots have had seven games settled in the closing moments.
At Buffalo: W, 23-21 | 0:09
Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal sealed the win after Tom Brady led a 12-play, 49-yard drive.
At Atlanta: W, 30-23 | 0:41
Aqib Talib knocked away Matt Ryan’s fourth-down pass for Roddy White in the end zone.
At Cincinnati: L, 13-6 | 0:26
Adam Jones made a juggling interception of Brady’s desperation heave in heavy rain.
At New Orleans: W, 30-27 | 0:10
Tom Brady’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins finished off a fourth-quarter comeback.
At NY Jets: L, 30-27 | 7:17 (OT)
An obscure penalty on a field-goal attempt allowed Nick Folk to get in position to kick a 42-yarder.
At Carolina: L, 24-20 | 0:03
Luke Kuechly became entangled with Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, but no flag was thrown.
Denver: W, 34-31 | 3:11 (OT)
The Patriots finished off a huge comeback when Tony Carter misplayed a punt.