FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — More than a few New England Patriots fans left at halftime of Sunday night’s game.
After all, their team coughed the ball up three times in the first quarter, trailed 24-0 after 30 minutes and was booed off the home turf at the break. The game-time wind chill, with a 22 mph wind blowing, was 6 degrees, it was a Sunday night, meaning there was Monday morning work and school.
A perfect time to make a run for it.
Those who exited early missed a wild second half and then an overtime that ended Monday morning and the largest comeback in Patriots history.
New England, led by quarterback Tom Brady, scored 31 consecutive points to take the lead, allowed the Broncos to tie the game, then got an incredibly lucky bounce to win in overtime. The Patriots escaped with a 34-31 victory, surviving the latest matchup of Brady and fellow future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
“If someone punches you in the face, do you turn around and walk away? Or do you fight back,” New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich said.
They fought back, and then got the game-winning break.
After New England’s second unsuccessful possession of overtime, a Ryan Allen punt was waved off by Denver return man Wes Welker, who allowed the ball to hit the ground. The ball then bounced off Denver cornerback Tony Carter, a former Patriot, and was recovered by Patriots safety Nate Ebner at the Broncos 13-yard line. After two Brady runs into the line, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 31-yard field goal.
The 24-point deficit was the largest ever overcome by New England.
Because of a stiff wind, Patriots coach Bill Belichick decided to take the wind rather than the ball after New England won the overtime toss. The decision worked out.
Gostkowski’s 21st consecutive field-goal attempt ended it, and New England (8-3) prevailed despite a dreadful first half.
“We didn’t give ourselves much of a chance in the first half,” Brady said.
After Brady led the Patriots to 31 consecutive points, Manning took his team 80 yards for the tying score, and the game went into overtime, where it looked as if it might end in the NFL’s second tie of the day.
Then came the bounce.
“Regardless of how it goes down, you’ve got to put it behind you quickly in this business,” Denver interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “You learn your lesson and go forward.”
While the Patriots kept losing the ball in the first quarter, by the end of the game, the Broncos (9-2) also lost three fumbles.
Brady, 10-for-17 for 81 yards at the half, hit 15 of his first 17 second-half passes and threw for three touchdowns, two to wide receiver Julian Edelman, who caught nine passes for 110 yards. He was working against a banged-up Denver defense that lost cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a shoulder injury and seemed to have someone limping off on every play.
Brady finished 34-for-50 for 344 yards. Manning was 19-for-36 for 150 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
“A disappointing second-half performance giving them two short fields,” said Manning, who lost his third consecutive matchup against Brady and the Patriots (with the Indianapolis Colts and the Broncos). “We just can’t do that to our defense. We just didn’t do a good job protecting the ball in that second half.”
The loss overshadowed a career night by Denver running back Knowshon Moreno, who ran for a career-high 224 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries.
The Patriots scored 28 points in a span of 13:08 in the third quarter and into the fourth. Brady recorded the 56th 300-yard game of his career and also became the fifth NFL quarterback with 350 career touchdown passes.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller ran 60 yards with a fumble recovery 5:06 into the game, and three fumbles led to 17 Denver points in what looked like it might be a blowout.
Welker, a former Patriots favorite who was booed by the home crowd, caught four passes for 31 yards and dropped three passes in his return.
In their first 10 games, the Patriots fumbled 13 times, losing five. They coughed it up three times on their first 13 plays Sunday, making them the first team since 2007 to lose three fumbles in a first quarter. Running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount and Brady all lost the ball; Ridley and Blount were benched for the rest of the game.
Bolden finished with 13 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown. Patriots running back Shane Vereen added 10 carries for 31 yards and eight receptions for 60 yards. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski contributed seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
NOTES: New England’s previous record for the largest comeback came when the Patriots escaped a 23-0 hole against the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 16, 1984, winning 38-23. … Broncos coach John Fox, who had heart-valve replacement surgery in Charlotte, N.C., on Nov. 4, will return to Denver on owner Pat Bowden’s private plane Wednesday. There was no word on when Fox would coach again. … The Patriots welcomed former WR Wes Welker with a pregame video tribute, but the fans booed him in the game. … Patriots CBs Aqib Talib (hip) and Alfonzo Dennard (knee), both questionable, played and contributed, while S Steve Gregory (thumb) and TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) didn’t. … Denver TE Julius Thomas (knee) was scratched, while CB Champ Bailey, who has played in only two games this season because of a foot injury, hoped to play but was inactive. … The Patriots visit the floundering Houston Texans on Sunday, while the Broncos head to Kansas City for a rematch against the Chiefs.