When the lights were flipped on at Gillette Stadium for a prime-time game Nov. 24, the Patriots and Broncos had yet to win much of anything. Despite leading their respective divisions, neither knew what the future held, either in the hours or weeks to come. All they shared, as the clock ticked down toward a much-anticipated regular-season game, were short-term focus and long-term goals.
Some details from the game might be forgotten — Brandon Bolden led the Patriots in rushing, for example — but what happened on that Sunday night in Foxborough seems relevant now, only because of what’s happened since.
As expected, the Broncos won the AFC West, and the Patriots won the AFC East. Both received byes into the divisional round, and each took care of business at home over the weekend, setting up a Sunday rematch. The winner of the AFC Championship game at Denver’s Sports Authority Field advances to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Nobody knows how Sunday will play out. If the first Broncos-Patriots game is any indication, there will be big plays, wild swings, and surprises. New faces, too, since both teams are missing key parts that played Nov. 24. The Broncos actually get one back, since tight end Julius Thomas missed the first game with an injury.
If we’re lucky, the second meeting will be just as entertaining as the first, which saw the Broncos bolt to a 24-0 halftime lead, thanks to fumbles by the Patriots on their first three possessions. The hosts responded with 31 straight points — aided by two Denver turnovers — to nudge in front.
After the Broncos forced overtime with a late touchdown pass, the teams seemed headed for a rare tie, until a Patriot punt bounced off Denver’s Tony Carter with three minutes left in the extra session. The game’s 11th fumble — and seventh turnover — allowed the Patriots to kick a field goal and win, 34-31. It was the largest comeback in franchise history.
“Obviously it’s going to be a different game,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “Different situations, different things will come up in the game. It’s a completely different game.”
This one, like the last one, will feature a pair of star quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, leading their teams against each other for the 15th time. Brady leads, 10-4, including 2-1 in the playoffs.
Brady won’t have tight end Rob Gronkowski to throw to this time. Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season game, is out for the year with a knee injury.
But Brady also won’t have Denver linebacker Von Miller chasing him — he’s also out with a knee injury. He won’t have top cornerback Chris Harris to avoid (knee injury). And he won’t have to elude defensive end Derek Wolfe, who suffered seizure-like symptoms and was put on IR Tuesday. Miller sacked Brady twice in the first meeting.
To gauge how different the Patriots are, LeGarrette Blount had two carries for 13 yards two months ago against the Broncos, when Bolden led the way with 58 yards, and Stevan Ridley was benched after a first-quarter fumble. In the six games since, Blount gained 564 yards on 95 carries, and scored nine touchdowns.
Blount was asked if the Patriots can take anything specific from the first Denver game, or if the teams are too different for it to make a difference. His answer was about the Broncos, but he could have just as easily been talking about himself.
“Right about now is when a lot of guys are playing different football, you know?” Blount said. “Guys are getting on hot streaks, and we’ve just got to go out there and see what they’re doing well, see what they’re not doing well, and hopefully try to exploit it.”
Blount didn’t run it well against Denver (granted, he wasn’t given much of a chance), but the Broncos sure did. With the Patriots prepared to stop Manning and the passing game at all costs, it opened up consistent running lanes for Knowshon Moreno, who ran for 224 yards on a whopping 37 attempts.
The 280 rushing yards by the Broncos weren’t just a season high allowed by the Patriots; they were the most ever given up in Bill Belichick’s 233 games coaching the team, eclipsing the 256 Miami ran for in the 2002 season finale.
It may be hard to tell based on Denver’s rushing numbers from the first meeting, but this time around the Patriots will be without one of their best run-stoppers. Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who had nine tackles and recovered a fumble against the Broncos, is also out for the rest of the season.
Manning threw for a season-low 150 yards in almost five quarters (remember, the first game went overtime), and completed just over 50 percent of his passes (19 for 36). But in the six games since then, he’s been back to normal, tossing 21 touchdowns and averaging 330 passing yards per contest. Now, with Julius Thomas back, Manning will have his four favorite weapons available (joining Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, and former Patriot Wes Welker).
The Patriots did a great job against Manning and the passing game the first time, holding Welker, Decker, and Demaryius Thomas to a combined nine catches. Denver, having so much success on the ground, was content staying with that, finishing with a season-high 48 rushing attempts. It’s the only time in 17 games this season (counting the playoff win) the Broncos have had more running plays than passing plays.
Will that be the case come Sunday? That depends on how things play out. Each team would gladly sacrifice the run or the pass, so long as it comes with a victory.
By beating the Broncos in overtime, the Patriots showed that a 24-point lead isn’t always enough. They followed it with fourth-quarter comeback wins the next two weeks, at Houston and at home against the Browns. Battling back has been a Patriots trademark all season, on the field and off. But it was never on display more than on a 22-degree night at Gillette Stadium in late November.
Denver has gone 5-1 since the game in Foxborough, same as the Patriots. Two teams that appear evenly matched and have already played one instant classic this season will line up again on Sunday. With the Rocky Mountains serving as the backdrop, the Patriots and Broncos will determine which squad will head to New Jersey and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Let the hype begin.