The winds of what looked to be a Broncos rout over the Patriots changed dramatically Sunday night. In a game of oddities, it was only fitting that in the end it all came down to a relative cast of unknowns and the unpredictable landing of one punt
Well, if you went to bed at halftime, when Denver led New England 24-0, you missed:
• The Patriots scoring 31 points in a row.
• Tom Brady throwing three touchdown passes into the teeth of a 22-mph wind in the third quarter.
• Peyton Manning driving the Broncos 80 yards into said stiff wind for the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
• On the 11-year anniversary of the ill-fated Marty Mornhinweg deferral to start overtime (Lions-Bears, Champaign, Ill.; for more details, that is why Google and Bing were invented, but suffice to say it did not end well for coach Mornhinweg), the Patriots won the toss, and Bill Belichick chose to give Manning the ball to start overtime. “We were like, ‘Defer? Take the wind?’ Even the captains didn’t know,” said Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty.
• Very nearly the first day in the NFL in 40 years with two ties.
• The last of 11 fumbles (a muff, actually, though it goes on the stat sheet as a fumble), this one with three minutes left in overtime, leading to the most disheartening loss in Denver hist—oh, wait, there was that double-overtime divisional loss to Baltimore last January. That would be more disheartening than this. But it’s close.
• The name “Peter” (no relation) playing a huge role in the outcome.
• New England winning Brady-Manning XIV, 34-31.
Let’s talk about that muff. It says so much about the game, and about why it turned the way it did and why 27 points came off turnovers. A Montee Ball fumble led to one New England touchdown, and a Manning interception (amazingly, the only interception of the windy night) led to another, and then the choice to defer in overtime … One bit of weirdness after another. “It was a significant wind,” said Belichick in explaining his call. Okay, but handing the ball to Manning? No way Belichick would have done this under the old overtime rules. Before 2012, any score in overtime would end the game. Starting last year, each team would possess the ball at least once in overtime, unless there were a touchdown or safety on the first possession. Upon the second possession, the game would be in sudden death. The specter of Manning driving, say, 40 yards to the winning field goal was far, far different than the specter of Manning driving 75 yards to the winning touchdown.
So Belichick handed Manning the ball willingly. (Which, as you know, hasn’t always been the best practice.)
Back and forth. With 3:11 left in OT, Manning would get one last chance to end the game. The Patriots lined up to punt from their 43. The punter, rookie Ryan Allen, stood near his 28. His personal protector, second-year former college rugby player Nate Ebner, was a few yards in front of him.
“Just a normal punt play,” Ebner said.
But not so normal. Back for Denver was Wes Welker, a sure-handed returner. Sure-handed, yes. But not the normal guy back there. The Broncos yanked Trindon Holliday, the normal (and dangerous) return man, because he’d fumbled earlier, and Welker, who’d returned but four punts all season, awaited. When the Denver returner waves off the return—when he doesn’t want to bring it back and simply wants to let the ball bounce—he yells, “Peter! Peter!” At the same time he waves his arms in a “no-good” motion. In front of Welker as the punt came down were two men, the closest a backup defensive back (like Ebner), Tony Carter.
“I’ve got to get to him earlier, and get those guys out of the way if I’m not going to make the catch,” said Welker.
In other words, as soon as the punt starts coming down, Welker has to see there’s too much traffic around him from the other team, and he has to scream “PETER” to be sure his guys look for the ball and stay away from it. When a falling or bouncing punt hits a member of the receiving team, it can be recovered by either side.
“I was a little bit in-between,” Welker said, “and you can’t be that way.”
Carter said, “At the last second I heard the get-away-from-the-ball call, like a ‘Peter’ call.”
Ebner, meanwhile, made his way through the morass at the line of scrimmage, fought through some traffic, and was steaming toward the punt spot. “Great punt by Ryan, and at the last second I saw the returner waiving it off. At the last second.”
Carter said, “I was trying to get away from the ball, but it took a bounce.”
With Ebner four yards away, the ball hit the turf and careened into Carter’s leg.
Carter said, “I was hoping it was something else, not the ball.”
It was the ball.
“Free ball then,” said Ebner. “All I’m thinking is, Fall on it. Recover the ball.”
Carter said, “Tough bounce.”
The Patriots lined up the winning field goal, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked it.
“At halftime,” said Ebner, “we knew it was a 60-minute game. We had a lot of time to go. [Belichick] just said, ‘Keep playing.’ We had time. The game wasn’t over.”
My two takeaways from this game:
1. I will take Tom Brady in a weather game over Peyton Manning. Without question. Brady’s arm is better.
2. We’ve spent a lot of time ripping New England’s player-acquisition process in the last few years. The draft, free-agency, trades. But look at how many new players made plays to help this team win. Ebner, a 2012 sixth-rounder, recovers the decisive fumble. Allen, an undrafted free-agent this year, places the punt well. Duron Harmon and Jamie Collins, 2013 draft picks, with 21 tackles between then. Logan Ryan, the third-round corner, with the game’s only interception, a diving job. Aqib Talib, acquired in trade from Tampa Bay, playing huge against Manning all night. Free agent Dane Fletcher recovering a fumble, and 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan and street free agent Marquice Cole forcing key fumbles. New England beat a very good team Sunday night, and it wasn’t just Brady that did it. It took a village.
* * *
Brady-Manning XV. That’s right. Again in 2014.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have opposed each other in Foxboro in nine of their 14 career meetings, including the last three times (2010, 2012, 2013). Denver and New England will play each other again in 2014, per the NFL future scheduling formula. That formula this season had New England playing every team in the AFC North plus the teams in the AFC West and AFC South that finished in the same position as the Patriots in 2012; that, of course, being Denver and Houston. Next season the formula has New England playing every team in the AFC West, plus the like-positioned teams in the AFC North and South.
Of course the 2014 Denver-New England game, it happens, would be in Foxboro.
If he’s still around next season at 38, Manning would be playing his 13th career game in Foxboro, and it would be the 10th time in 12 seasons he has competed against Brady in the town halfway between Boston and Providence (not including 2008, when Brady was hurt, and 2011, when Manning was out).
Conversely, Dan Marino and John Elway played their careers in the AFC, as have Manning and Brady. But Marino and Elway once went 12 seasons, from 1986 to 1997, without facing each other.