DENVER - Patriots coach Bill Belichick always talks about how turnovers and penalties decide games. And he's right. Turnovers and penalties do decide games.
Most games. Not last night's game.
Despite turning the ball over twice and committing a season-high 14 penalties at Invesco Field at Mile High, the Patriots overcame the Denver Broncos, 30-26, on Tom Brady's 18-yard touchdown pass to David Givens with 30 seconds remaining in front of 72,852 mostly stunned witnesses.
The win was the fifth in a row for New England (7-2) and, coupled with Miami's loss to Indianapolis Sunday, widened its AFC East lead to 1 1/2 games. The victory was only the Patriots' second in their last 14 trips to the Mile High City. But they've won two of three games here under Belichick.
It's not often that the key play in a victory involves the other team scoring and expanding its lead. But that's what happened last night. With 2:51 remaining and the Broncos leading, 24-23, the Patriots lined up to punt from their 1. But rather than have Ken Walter kick and give Denver prime field position, Belichick and special teams coach Brad Seely had long snapper Lonie Paxton - a potential goat just a quarter earlier - snap the ball out of the end zone.
The intentional safety made it 26-23, Denver, and set up a Patriots free kick from the 30. Deltha O'Neal misplayed Walter's kick, and Denver took over on its own 15. "That's 25, 30 yards of field position," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.
"We just made one more play than they did," Belichick said. "We've got a lot of tough guys in that locker room. It was tough out there, but those guys are tough, too. This team is a pretty resilient team. We just wanted to come out of here with a victory. It doesn't get any tougher than here in Denver. It's good to win this game."
"Our coaches did a helluva job," Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light said. "I personally think we have the best coaching staff in the league. What a great call. I didn't see it coming. Lonie doesn't snap anywhere other than the target so we knew it was on purpose."
After forcing the Broncos to go three and out, the Patriots took possession at their 42 with 2:15 remaining and one timeout. They wouldn't need it. In six plays and 1:30, Brady drove his team 58 yards, 42 coming on completions to Faulk. On first down from the Denver 18, Brady intentionally threw behind Givens at the end zone, who made the adjustment and the catch just inside the left pylon. The irony was that Givens was being defended by O'Neal, who had given Denver a 24-20 lead with a 57-yard punt return.
Brady, who had struggled his first two games against Denver, completed 20 of 35 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns.
Adam Vinatieri's 28-yard field goal 3:48 into the fourth quarter pulled the Patriots, who improved to 10-19 on Monday night, to within 24-23.
After having committed two turnovers during their four-game winning streak and none in three of those games, the Patriots gave the ball to the Broncos twice. And after looking as getting their penalties under control the past two weeks, Dan Klecko's offside on third and 7 from the 32 with 8:08 left in the game negated Eugene Wilson's stick on Rod Smith that forced an incompletion and put Denver in third and short. But strangely, rather than give the ball to Clinton Portis, Shanahan had Kanell throw on third and 3. The pass was incomplete, and Broncos fans were completely frustrated with their team when Micah Knorr's punt went into the end zone for a touchback.
Whenever the Patriots leave the Mile High City, it's usually on a low note. They came into last night's game having lost 12 of their last 13 games here, the lone victory coming in 2000, Belichick's first season as head coach.
Denver broke a 10-10 tie with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Kanell, the third-string quarterback, to fullback Mike Anderson with 24 seconds remaining in the first half. But rookie Bethel Johnson's 63-yard return of the ensuing kickoff set up Vinatieri's 46-yard field goal just before intermission that pulled the Patriots within 4 points.
The Patriots didn't begin the game looking intent on reversing their run of misfortune here. On New England's second play from scrimmage, Brady and rookie center Dan Koppen - who appeared to double-clutch the snap - fumbled the exchange, and Broncos safety Kenoy Kennedy recovered at the Patriots' 28-yard line. Kanell and Smith hooked up for a 9-yard gain to the 15 on third and 6. On the next play, Portis squirted through a gaping hole up the middle for the game's first touchdown.
Former Boston College centers figured prominently in the game's opening moments; Koppen's snap resulted in the fumble, and Denver's Tom Nalen threw a key block on Roman Phifer, giving Portis a clear path to the end zone.
The Patriots were second in the AFC with a plus-8 turnover differential coming in, but on their second possession - on their fifth play from scrimmage - Brady went deep down the middle for Givens, and the ball deflected off him and instead found the hands of Kennedy at the Broncos' 35.
Denver failed to turn this turnover into points, as the drive - highlighted by a 26-yard pass from Kanell to Patriot-killer Smith - stalled at New England's 26. Jason Elam, who later would leave the game with a strained groin and be replaced by punter Knorr, missed a 44-yard field goal wide left.
At this point (6:04 to go in the first quarter), the Patriots had run five plays from scrimmage to Denver's 1, been outgained, 76 yards to 2, and committed two turnovers. It didn't look good. But the complexion of the game changed in an instant - 9 seconds actually - as Brady hit Deion Branch for a 66-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7. Branch got behind Kelly Herndon and outran former BC Eagle Lenny Walls. The catch was the longest of Branch's career.
Denver capitalized on good field position (New England's 42) and went ahead, 10-7, with 11:29 to go before halftime on Elam's 43-yard field goal. But the Patriots answered with a seven-play, 58-yard drive that ended with Vinatieri's 40-yard field goal with 7:57 left in the half.
Givens redeemed himself on the drive with a 48-yard reception down the sideline. He put a convincing double move on Walls, gathered in Brady's perfect pass, and picked up a chunk of yards before getting caught him from behind.
In the third quarter, New England put together an eight-play, 56-yard drive that ended with Graham's 6-yard touchdown reception and a 20-17 lead. Antowain Smith had a 14-yard catch and run (emphasis on run) and an 11-yard burst up the middle behind Damien Woody, who removed two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Al Wilson from the hole.
Disaster nearly struck for the Patriots, though, when, with 4:53 to go in the third, Branch, returning punts in place of Troy Brown, appeared to fumble Knorr's punt, and Denver recovered. But Belichick challenged the fumble, and referee Peter Morelli ruled that Branch's left arm was on the ground when the ball came loose. Turned out the overturned call only momentarily delayed Denver's getting the ball back. New England faced third and 1 from its 30, but a deep pass for Branch down the sideline fell incomplete. Three and out.
That questionable play call turned out to be huge. And partly because of its failure, disaster did strike. Walter's first punt was nullified by a holding call on Paxton, and O'Neal brought the rekick back 57 yards for a touchdown.