It isn't often when the most anticipated game of the year goes beyond the spectrum of what anyone saw coming. But that's what happened on a brutally cold and windy Sunday night in Foxboro.
In a nutshell, here's what happened. Quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos dismantled quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the first half. The Patriots dismantled the Broncos in the second half.
The game went into overtime, and that's when the game really began.
Each quarterback had two possessions in extra time, with each of their squads taking the other's best slugs in the jaw. Ultimately, it came down to big defensive stops, a peculiar coaching decision, a major gaffe on special teams and the will and mental toughness of the quarterbacks in question.
Here are five things we learned about the Patriots from their gritty 31-34 overtime victory over the Broncos on Sunday night.
When the Patriots went into halftime, they were down 24-0. Despair loomed.
They needed someone to guide them out of the darkness. Receiver Julian Edelman answered the call.
Early in the third quarter, with the still-scoreless Patriots on 2nd-and-2 at Denver's 10, Edelman made a bobbling catch that required mathematical concentration. Though only a five-yard gain, it felt like more. It generated electricity in the crowd and made Patriots fans believe that a ridiculous comeback was possible.
On the next play, Edelman caught a spectacular touchdown. The Patriots got on the board, 24-7.
With 1:09 left in the third, the Patriots having gained further ground at 24-14, Edelman caught a deep left ball and picked up 43 yards with precision speed, putting his team at Denver's 8-yard line. Three plays later, tight end Rob Gronkowski scored, making it 24-21.
With 13:33 left in the fourth quarter, positioned at 1st-and-10 at Denver's 14, Edelman notched a 14-yard reception and finished it at the goal line with a remarkable spin and a giant leap, diving with his torso horizontal to the ground and his arms outstretched for a touchdown. Score: 24-28, Patriots.
With 12:22 left in the quarter, Edelman staged a magnificent punt return for 20 yards, charging into Broncos territory. The Patriots scored a field goal on that possession, going up 24-31.
Then came overtime.
Nearing the end of extra minutes, Edelman caught a short pass down the middle and broke away for 17 yards. Though the Patriots didn't generate much offense on that drive, there was still a buzz in the air from Edelman's magic, which everyone fed off.
That energy helped to spark an urgent and alert Patriots squad on special teams. Punter Ryan Allen boomed a kick that touched Broncos cornerback/special teamer Tony Carter before getting loose and going haywire. Patriots safety Nate Ebner recovered the ball at Denver's 13.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed the game winner from 31 yards out.
Edelman finished with nine catches, 110 yards and two touchdowns. He was the backbone of the comeback. This was an important night for an important player.
Julian Edelman has arrived.
Yeah, it was madness.
Manning's been a scoring machine this year. He's potentially in the midst of an MVP season (this would be his fifth). Betting against him on national television takes an iron stomach.
But Belichick had placed Manning's offense in suspect conditions, in the direction of an oppressive wind on an aggressively cold night (a nice pass rush also helped). These factors bothered Manning all evening, and Belichick figured they'd bother him again with the game on the line.
The odds of a touchdown in those conditions were slim. A field goal (or no points) would've given the Patriots the ball with an opportunity to glide down the field with the wind in their favor.
The minute Belichick gave the ball to Manning, I thought to myself: This is one of those gutsy gambles I'm used to seeing this man make. And these gambles tend to be absurdly stressful to endure.
Two quintessential Belichickian moments immediately came to mind, both with some appropriate context.
The first moment came in the 2003 season, in another Patriots vs. Broncos contest. Late in the fourth, the Patriots were down by one point, and they were backed up on their own 1-yard line on fourth down. Belichick elected to take an intentional safety with a high snap on the goal post, making it 23-26 with under three minutes to go.
It was a bold move that gave them a free kick and improved their field position, allowing their defense to hold Denver to three-and-out. Quarterback Tom Brady went back out and led the offense downfield for a touchdown. The Patriots won, 30-26.
The second Belichickian moment came in 2009 in a Brady vs. Manning contest, back when Manning slung for the Indianapolis Colts. New England had the ball, up 34-28 with 2:08 to go in the game. Belichick went for it on 4th-and-2 from his own 28. It was an aggressive attempt to win.
The conversion failed. Manning got the ball back and threw a touchdown to Colts receiver Reggie Wayne. The Colts won, 34-35.
Advantage: Not Belichick.
Belichick's decision on Sunday night to defer on overtime was one of those Belichickian moments that was destined to go one of those two ways. He was either going to be lauded or scolded. On this occasion, he walked away a hero.
No doubt, Belichick has his faults. It's irritating how he stonewalls the media (and by extension, genuinely interested fans). It's irritating how he operates on a near-reckless method of passing on excellent free agents while letting good players walk and drafting with an overly cerebral blueprint that only he understands.
But there's one redeeming quality about him: He's still the smartest guy in the room.
Sure, everything worked out for the Patriots on Sunday night. But up until the point when it actually worked, it was enough to make Patriots fans sick. At the root of that sickness was Bill Belichick.
Truth be told, his team didn't look prepared to play this unbelievably important game. The Patriots came out looking flat, dispirited and sloppy. They turned the ball over on their first three drives, all of which led to Denver touchdowns.
This is a reflection on the head coach.
Whatever Belichick's doing to prepare these guys for combat isn't working. Sure, their collective football IQs are out of this stratosphere, but they aren't physically ready to compete at a championship level for 60 minutes.
Worst of all, this has become a trend for them.
Both Super Bowl XLII and XLVI were extremely hyped games on a national level, just as this Manning vs. Brady contest was. In all three games, the two Super Bowls and Sunday night's game, the Patriots came out looking like nervous players who didn't believe in themselves. Other recent playoff losses have followed a similar suit.
Fact is, when teams start games badly, they put themselves in the horrendous position of having to play almost perfectly in the second half to win. Fortunately for the Patriots, they did that on Sunday night, notching a win that'll go down in franchise lore.
But still, this isn't a lifestyle to embrace; it's one to avoid. It's good to win ugly. It builds character. But it's another thing to get bludgeoned for half a game.
Winning teams storm out of the tunnel looking like they want to win. They don't make you guess, "Do they want this thing? Do they not?"
Of course, storming out strong doesn't mean the team will always be up—hardships happen, competition is tough, winning is hard. But it's important to stay competitive and let the world know you want it.
It's the coach's responsibility to get his players ready to compete at a bloodthirsty rate. But more often than not, the Patriots look like psychological chess players, not tough and violent football players.
Belichick was masterful on Sunday night, but that game easily could've slid the other way. In fact, it can be argued it should've slid the other way, which is why the victory was so improbable and amazing. And while that's something to celebrate, it isn't something to Xerox over and over again.
Winning teams have winning spirits. For half of Sunday's game, the Patriots didn't have one.
Relationships are all about taking the good with the bad. After all, nobody's perfect, so you learn to love the best parts of someone and tolerate the annoying parts.
A few years ago, Patriots fans faced this dilemma with franchise running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The guy never fumbled. That was his good charm, and it was easy to love that about him.
The bad part, however, was that he wasn't a playmaker. He made plays in spurts, but he wasn't an elite back who could move the needle in profound, championship ways. But, Patriots fans tolerated that about him because he was reliable with the ball.
Ridley became the anti-Green-Ellis. Immediately upon being promoted, he proved himself as one of the most dynamic backs in the NFL. Boasting the right blend of aggression and swagger, you always knew when he was out there because he bled teams of will and energy. When he scored, you noticed because he was so loud about it. And this year, when the passing game hasn't clicked, he's shined bright.
But here's the bad part: This kid absolutely, positively cannot be trusted with the ball.
Back in September, just before New England took on Tampa Bay, I touched on Ridley's fumbling issues in one of my articles:
This problem isn't going away. He might not fumble against the Buccaneers, but he will fumble down the road. Just as injuries to [Danny] Amendola and [Rob] Gronkowski are commonplace at this point, you just have to accept Ridley's fumbling and live with it.
I have a slight modification to make now. I just can't live with it anymore.
This kid fumbled in the last three straight games against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Broncos. His fumble at the goal line against Carolina was a momentum-altering, game-changing play in New England's loss.
And most importantly, his fumble in the Broncos game sucked the air out of Gillette Stadium and contributed to the Patriots' dismal first half. He wasn't alone in his woes (fellow back LeGarrette Blount and quarterback Tom Brady also turned it over), but Ridley's was the one that got the ball rolling.
No, no, I can't live with this anymore. Ridley's done.
The problem with the Brady vs. Manning debate is that it's taken on larger, darker overtones. It's become a situation whereby picking one quarterback has become an instant slander on the other. It's as if to pick one is to imply the other isn't worthy of being in contention.
That's a false notion, and it never should've been allowed to grow.
Fact is, both Brady and Manning are legends of a truly supreme nature. These guys are geniuses, masters of their craft, both entirely worthy of being compared to each other. And whichever guy you pick shouldn't serve to indict the other. We should be lucky that we have both of these quarterbacks in our lives.
But in the final analysis, the debate comes down to two defining factors: Super Bowl wins and head-to-head games.
Brady has more Super Bowl titles (three against Manning's one), and he's won more head-to-head contests (10 against Manning's four).
More importantly, when we look back on this worthy competition, we'll remember nights like that bone-chilling Sunday night in the winter of 2013, when both guys were in the prime of their careers and leaving everything out there on the field.
On Sunday, Brady once again showed that he possesses a kind of internal demon and theatrical element that Manning doesn't. Brady's hysteric screaming with Gronkowski after a touchdown, his embrace with teammates, his furious desire to claw back from a historic hole when there's almost no reason to do so, his ruthless unwillingness to submit—it all falls in line with Brady's edge here.
Again, that shouldn't be taken in any other venomous context in the scope of Manning's talent. There are plenty of statistics and moments in which Manning takes the glory. The guy's a warrior and a champion, and he'll forever be known as one of the finest football players of all time.
But if you saw that game on Sunday night, then you know what you saw.