FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Broncos’ locker room felt like it was operating in slow motion, as if the final score would somehow change if everyone lingered long enough. Running back Knowshon Moreno was the last to leave, hopping on crutches a full hour after the Patriots kicked a 31-yard field goal in overtime to complete the biggest comeback in franchise history.
Interim Broncos head coach Jack Del Rio, his cheeks flushed red from the six-degree windchill and a tinge of embarrassment, didn’t have much to tell the team after the 34-31 loss: This was a tough one, and that was a great team we played against, he said. What more can really be said after blowing 24-0 halftime lead and reinforcing your team’s greatest insecurities in prime time?
You know which insecurities: Peyton Manning lost to Tom Brady for the 10th time in 14 meetings, and yet another big game in the cold. And Wes Welker, in his return to Gillette Stadium just months after his messy split from the Patriots, was part of the muffed punt that led to New England’s game-winning score three plays later.
When it was finally over, three hours and 53 minutes after kickoff, the Broncos took their time gathering themselves. Moreno, who ran for a career-high 224 yards, struggled to walk the 20 feet from his locker to the training room after rolling his right foot on his 37th and final carry. Left tackle Chris Clark winced as he asked a team staffer to help him pull off his pads, and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie fidgeted with a new shoulder sling. Del Rio hesitated before his postgame press conference, staring at the box score.
The Broncos are still 9-2, one game ahead of the Pats (8-3) and tied with the Chiefs for the best record in the AFC. But Manning and Welker didn’t even bother pretending that this was just any old loss.
Welker dressed at his locker in front of a waiting media scrum, slowly buttoning a white collared shirt dotted with navy stars. When he turned around, his glassy blue eyes were opened wide. The blame was his, he said, for a pair of plays in overtime that swung the game the Patriots’ way. There was the 3rd-and-8 at New England’s 37-yard-line, on which linebacker Jamie Collins broke up the pass to Welker, forcing the Broncos to punt. Welker said he should have squeezed the ball in tighter. On the muffed punt, Welker, who was inserted as the “safe” returner, said he should have issued the signal to call off the return earlier.
As it happened, teammate Tony Carter was still blocking his man for the return when the punt bounced into Carter’s leg. The Patriots recovered the ball at Denver’s 13-yard line, setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s chip-shot field goal with the wind at his back. Welker didn’t talk to Carter or any teammates on the sideline afterward. The first time he verbalized what happened was to the media, and he still seemed stunned.
“Well, yeah,” Welker said, with a touch of annoyance. “The game just ended.”
Stunned was also the best descriptor for Manning, who sat at his vacant locker stall, fully dressed, thumbing through his phone for several minutes. When he finally stood up and slipped into his overcoat, a security guard pointed him in the direction of the team bus. But Manning just shook his head, lingering instead in the frigid bowels of the stadium while the equipment staff emptied the locker room. At one point, he caught eyes with Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and approached him for a brief conversation—ironic because Patricia had some of the answers Manning was seeking as to why his offense managed only one score after halftime. But rivals aren’t expected to share.
“Good luck,” Manning said.
“I’ll talk to you later,” Patricia said.
No one would believe the ending if it hadn’t actually happened. Peyton Manning was given the ball first in overtime. He had the ball for 7 minutes and 53 seconds in overtime. He had the ball in Patriots territory in overtime—twice. And yet he couldn’t score. Sure, Manning wasn’t the focal point of the offense on this windy night (that was Moreno), and he posted season lows in completion percentage (52.8) and passing yards (150). But the Patriots lined up to punt on 4th-and-four from their own 43, and he was about to get the ball back with more than three minutes left in overtime, needing only a field goal to win. You’d take that bet, right?
Then the ball bounced and the duel between the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks was decided by a special teams miscue.
“I hated the way that ended,” Manning said, “and not getting a chance there to get our hands on the ball.”
At 1:17 a.m., Manning finally headed for the team bus. Moreno hobbled through the door a few minutes later, wearing a walking boot on his right foot and flannel pajama pants for the long journey home. They left in the nick of time, just missing a gleeful Rob Gronkowski careening through the corridor in the front seat of a golf cart.
“Mooooove it!” the Patriots tight end called out playfully. For the victors, it was full speed ahead.