DENVER — Playing at home against an injury-plagued New England team appeared not to be a recipe for success until the final drive in regulation, when Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, the most consistent offensive player on the field, shifted into top gear. In overtime, he put the pedal to the metal on the game's final play, a 48-yard touchdown run.
From his very first snap, Anderson made energetic bursts and lightning-quick cutbacks despite the frozen snow on the grass at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. His dash in overtime began with slight patience: He followed a gaping hole and accelerated quickly with the aid of blocks by Vernon Davis and Demaryius Thomas, shrugged off two defenders, and ran the last 15 yards untouched into the end zone.
"When Brock [Osweiler] changed the play [at the line of scrimmage], I said, 'Maybe this has a chance,' '' Anderson said. Ryan [Harris] was leading, and I thought if he gets through the hole, I can get through the hole, and then I had the chance to get to the safeties, make them miss, and the rest is history.''
With 113 yards on 15 carries, the 5-foot-8-inch, 224-pound tank who was undrafted out of Cal, posted his third-best yardage total of his three-year career. He credited better team execution and admitted that the freezing temperatures and slick field made a difference.
"Ronnie [Hillman, 59 yards on 14 carries] and I are making the right cuts and the right reads,'' he said. "There were crazy lanes for us . . . and especially in that cold there are not a lot of people who want to tackle you.''
Noting that Anderson approached him on the sideline, asking him for more carries, Denver's first-year head coach Gary Kubiak said, "I think C.J.'s gaining confidence in what we do.''
In a mixed performance in his second NFL start, Osweiler gave up a 13-yard sack by Jonathan Freeny that took his team out of field goal range, and was intercepted after being hit as he released the ball, which led to a quick, short-yardage New England touchdown. On the plus side, Osweiler threw several fourth-quarter on-target passes despite being drilled.
Denver was also hurt by a missed field goal and a trio of particularly egregious penalties, particularly unsportsmanlike penalties by Von Miller and former Patriot Aqib Talib and a 10-yard holding penalty by Evan Mathis.
Denver reversed the "missed opportunities'' narrative on the next possession of the final quarter after gaining the ball back on a muffed punt. Although Osweiler's first pass was incomplete, Anderson again ran with urgency and power, and Osweiler hit a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders on a crossing route for a 17-yard gain to the Patriots' 15 yard line. Anderson was speedy on the snow-covered grass, veering around the edge of the New England defense, turning the corner, and diving into the end zone to cut the lead to 21-14 with 12:34 remaining.
After a defensive stand, New England forced Denver to settle for a 21-yard field goal that cut the Patriots' lead to 21-17 with 6:08 remaining. With another defensive stand in hand, Denver's final drive started in a promising fashion: Thomas made his first catch of the game, leaping for a 36-yard gain that gave the Broncos possession on the 47-yard line at the two-minute warning.
Again out of the shotgun against a four-man rush, Osweiler went long and found Sanders with a perfectly placed pass for a 38-yard gain to the 8.
On the next play, Osweiler ran his first designed keeper, gaining only 1 yard. Then Osweiler waited too long, allowing Alan Branch to wrap him up for what would have been a 5-yard loss. In the white snow, however, a yellow flag appeared. It was a penalty against Patrick Chung, which gave Denver a first down on the 4. On the ensuing play, Osweiler found Andre Caldwell open in the left corner of the end zone.
In just five plays, the Broncos had gone 83 yards, and with the PAT, they took a 24-21 lead with 1:09 remaining.
It was the first lead of the game for the Broncos, but it didn't last long as the Patriots drove 51 yards in five plays, culminating with Stephen Gostkowski's 47-yard field goal with no time left, which tied the game, 24-24.