With 5 minutes left in regulation, how many of you asked, “Who wants to win this game?
Combined, New England and Denver turned the ball over on 3 of their last 5 possessions. Nevertheless, as they did against quarterback Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in 2010, the Patriots sealed the win late in the fourth quarter when Denver’s veteran running back Willis McGahee fumbled the ball.
Tom Brady now holds a 9-4 career advantage over the future hall-of-fame quarterback, but even more important, he helped lift his team to a 3-1 record in the conference and a 3-2 record on the season.
Patriots 31 Denver 21
Let us be honest: this on-stage drama will never get old, figuratively speaking of course. Most movies tire out after their sequel. Most quality television shows fade after their seventh season and most musicians stumble off the stage when their song falls from number one on the charts.
Add how our nation yearns constantly to witness the next great thing and it is astonishing how Brady vs. Manning still captivates viewers. Only the quarterback's ages (Manning 36 Brady 35) will eventually force this show to be cancelled.
First half recap
During the first half, both teams only had roughly 4 possessions, showcasing how their margin-of-errors were razor thin. The Patriots capitalized first when they halted Manning’s first crack at putting points on the board by recovering wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' fumble. Two drives later, the Patriots marched 84 yards on 12 plays to score the game’s first touchdown.
Patriots 7 Broncos 0. Or, as most probably viewed it—Brady 7 Manning 0.
For the second consecutive week, New England set the tone early by establishing their run game behind running back Steven Ridley. Doing so allowed Brady to rest easy in the pocket and throw an impressive 17 of 20 completions for 165 yards and 1 touchdown in the first half; receiver Wes Welker was on the receiving end of 9 of those passes. Brady led 3 scoring drives over 80 yards, including a 93-yard tour that nearly ended with a Brandon Bolden rushing touchdown, but instead finished with a field goal.
Denver’s offense struggled for much of the first half until Manning hit wide receiver Eric Decker with an 8-yard touchdown after a failed third-down challenge by Coach Bill Belichick and a 19-yard pass interference penalty on corner back Devin McCourty.
With an up-tempo offense and a stingy run defense, the Patriots were the main feature of Act 1 in this series' 13th episode. Patriots 17 Denver 7
Second half recap
So how many times did the Patriots convert 3rd and long? Answer: In the game, they converted 6 third downs that were 7 yards or more.
Running back Danny Woodhead’s 19-yard run on 3rd and 17 helped spark one of the Patriot’s first two scoring drives in the second quarter. Starting on their 20 yard line, New England mix-and-matched 8 passes and 13 runs (mostly outside the Tackles) to set up their second touchdown, a 1-yard touchdown leap and reach by Brady.
One play later, linebacker/defensive end Rob Ninkovich decisevly beat his man to strip-sack Manning and lineman Vince Wilfork recovered the fumble. Steven Ridley followed up the turnover with a 8-yard sweep play to the left for 6 points. In 18 seconds, New England scored twice to push ahead 31-7 and were already looking to close the curtain.
However, you can never count out Manning. He is New England's antagonist that never quite kicks the bucket. It always takes more than one hit to beat him and he never goes down before the last scene—before he has one final opportunity to try and land a fatal, but off-the-mark blow to the protagonist.
Manning quickly answered New England’s score with his own 10 play, 90-yard drive to scratch the lead to 31-14. And with 6:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, he hit old-pal wide receiver Brandon Stokley with a 5-yard touchdown strike to cut the Patriot’s lead to a mere 11 points.
What had become a comedy, quickly turned into a drama. Or, probably better described as a thriller.
In the final six minutes of regulation, the Patriots and Broncos collectively combined for 3 turnovers—2 fumbles by New England and 1 game-killing fumble by McGahee, which all but sealed Manning and Denver’s fate.
How did the Patriots win this game?
Denver blitzed only 32 percent of the time and instead relied on their front 3-4 defenders to pressure Brady. It never worked, as Brady completed 8 out of 10 passes against that rush.
The Patriot’s running game chalked up 250 yards rushing on 4.6 yards per carry and their offense converted a team record 35 first touchdowns. They also kept Manning off the field by holding the ball 11 minutes more than Denver.
Many have said this could be the last time Brady and Manning square off. And it very well could be. However, I have a hard time believing their story ends like this.
I am waiting for the climax. The grand finale. Their tale’s final chapter. I’m waiting for the real final credits to role. And these two directors will let us know when their show ends.