FOXBOROUGH — In the end, after all the hype and hyperbole, Brady-Manning XVI — a.k.a. the New England Patriots vs. the Denver Broncos, 2014 regular-season edition — lacked the drama of so many of the previous 15 meetings.
Against one of the league’s most prolific offenses and stingiest defenses, the Patriots bolted to a 20-point lead at halftime, 27-7, and then delivered the knockout in the second half for a 43-21 victory over the Broncos Sunday, continuing an impressive turnaround that began after they were embarrassed by the Chiefs on a Monday night at the end of September.
The Patriots have won five straight games, and got big plays from all three phases: the offense, with the line doing a fine job of protecting Tom Brady against the best sack tandem in the NFL in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware; the defense, which got two interceptions and gave the offense excellent field position in the process; and special teams, in which Julian Edelman scored his franchise-record fourth touchdown on a punt return.
And now, with their calendar showing a bye week, the Patriots can rest.
“This week was a great week for all of us,” Vince Wilfork said. “Once we got the game plan and we kind of figured out what we needed to do . . . We practiced with noise. Bill [Belichick] made it as realistic as possible for us and we had to force ourselves to communicate in practice. Everybody came to work ready to work and focused.
“My hat goes off to this team.”
Said fellow captain Devin McCourty, “Wednesday and Thursday, we flew around on the field in practice. Guys were treating it like it was the game.”
“These guys worked really hard on their preparation,” Belichick said. “Denver is a real hard team to get ready for; they’re a real good football team. You have to give our team a lot of credit for the way they competed out there tonight; just hung in there series after series after series and went toe-to-toe with that group. I’m really proud of the way they played.”
Snow arrived in Foxborough late in the morning, and it seemed things would be in New England’s favor even before the game began: The Patriots seem to thrive in the snow, and Peyton Manning doesn’t play well in it.
But the snow stopped more than an hour before kickoff, giving the Gillette Stadium field crew enough time to clean off the FieldTurf, repaint the hash marks — the paint was still wet when play began — and essentially make the surface pristine.
The improved conditions didn’t seem to help Manning (34 of 57 passing for 438 yards with 2 TDs and 2 interceptions).
Denver, which ran for 280 yards last season against the Patriots in the regular season, came into the game believing it could make hay on the ground again, especially since run defense has been a weakness for New England.
But the Patriots held Ronnie Hillman, who entered the game with 100 yards rushing or more in two of his last three games, to just 16 yards on 10 carries.
The Broncos didn’t convert a third down until the third quarter and had just three in 11 opportunities. The Patriots stopped all four of their fourth-down attempts.
“Any time you have a fourth-down stop, it’s always huge,” Wilfork said.
The Patriots’ first points came on their second possession, a 49-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. Denver answered with a nine-play touchdown drive that featured a 17-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders, a 21-yard pass to Sanders, and an 18-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas, but it would be the only time they led in the game.
New England’s next drive stalled in the red zone, forcing it to settle for a field goal, but two plays later, Manning didn’t see Rob Ninkovich as he drifted back toward Thomas. The pass intended for Thomas ended up in Ninkovich’s hands, and he returned the ball well into Denver territory.
“I thought that was a critical play,” Manning said.
“We didn’t recover as well as we would have liked, so they got a touchdown out of that . . . You just can’t put the defense in a bad spot like that. Certainly a play I’d like to have back; really bad decision by me.”
New England covered the 34 yards in five plays, with Brady directing a perfect 5-yard pass to Edelman for the touchdown.
It was 13-7, and the home team never trailed again.
The Patriots’ lead grew to 20-7 thanks to Edelman. Denver punter Britton Colquitt dropped the snap from Aaron Brewer but was able to get the punt off, though Brandon Bolden nearly blocked it.
Edelman fielded the ball, headed up the right sideline, then cut back toward the middle of the field around the 30, outrunning Colquitt to the goal line for the 84-yard score.
Brandon LaFell (six catches, 53 yards, touchdown) said he could feel the momentum of the game turn on that play.
“Give credit to Julian and the punt return team, they stepped up and made a big play right when we needed it,” LaFell said. “It was like from that point on, we had the momentum of the game, and every time we got the ball after that, we just kept putting drives together and getting points.”
Brady (33 of 53 for 333 yards with 4 TDs and 1 interception), who last week joked he doesn’t have a cell in his body that tells him to run when he has the ball, sprinted all the way across the field to celebrate, holding Edelman’s helmet close to his own.
The Patriots scored again before the half, again getting a short field thanks to the defense, when Akeem Ayers sacked Manning on fourth down. This time, Shane Vereen was on the receiving end of Brady’s touchdown pass.
In all, Brady threw those four touchdowns, his 22d such game, and in the process passed Broncos president John Elway for fifth place all time in passing yards.
Brady’s fourth went to Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter, a 1-yard score that came a play after Gronkowski made a phenomenal, one-handed, 20-yard grab falling backward.
It was another occasion when Gronkowski left his teammates shaking their heads.
“It was incredible. One of the best catches I’ve ever seen,” Brady said.
Now 7-2, Belichick reminded his players after the game that seven wins doesn’t get them anything in the NFL.
But it certainly helps with perception, and possibly, playoff seeding.
“That’s thinking too far ahead,” LaFell said. “But it’s a big win. It’s a big win because everyone was calling them the best team in the league and that you could go out there and play this game at home, get a big win like we did, then we’re pretty good now.”