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Sunday, November 24, 2013
Updated: November 25, 11:59 AM ET
Patriots able to do the impossible

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- They were toast.

Burnt toast, bad toast, just throw-it-in-the-trash-cuz-it-can't-be-salvaged toast.

The New England Patriots trailed the Denver Broncos 24-0 at the half Sunday night and there was absolutely no reason to think they could recover from two humiliating quarters of miscues.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady was pumped up after connecting with Julian Edelman for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The glamor match-up of Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning failed to materialize in the opening half due to a series of New England follies that were equally embarrassing and infuriating.

The Patriots' running backs couldn't hang on to the ball. Their vaunted offensive line, presumably one of the stronger units on this roster, did little to deter Von Miller from doing his level best to pulverize their quarterback.

Manning, whose gimpy ankles were so thoroughly taped he could have co-starred alongside Brendan Fraser in "The Mummy," surveyed the high winds and bitter cold and decided his most effective strategy was to hand the ball off to running back Knowshon Moreno, who already had churned out 107 yards by intermission.

New England's defense has admirably withstood the major losses of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly, yet on this night, it appeared the cracks in the defensive veneer finally were showing.

The deficit was every bit as cavernous as it seemed.

According to the ever vigilant ESPN Stats & Information group, teams that trailed by 24 points or more at halftime were 5-485 heading into Sunday night.

Show of hands: Based on what they displayed, who truly believed the New England Patriots would find a way to be the sixth team?

"[We played] a terrible half of football,'' Brady admitted. "I don't even know what you coach at that point.''

Bill Belichick probably wondered himself. After Stevan Ridley coughed up the ball and Miller ran it 60 yards for a score on the Patriots' first possession, Ridley was benched. LeGarrette Blount replaced him, fumbled and was benched too.

The coach was running out of backs.

And yet, the message was simple: Do not be overwhelmed by the scoreboard. Keep trying to put points on the board, one play at a time.

"It's not like we're going to quit after 30 minutes,'' Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib said. "You keep fighting, keep clawing, keep scratching, keep trying to get back in it.

"We're grown men. We're not going to pout about it, cry about it."

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According to the Patriots players, there was no tongue lashing from Belichick in the locker room, no rousing oration from Brady to rally the troops, such as David Ortiz did in the dugout during the World Series.

"It was just all business,'' Talib explained.

"No one came in and screamed or anything,'' Devin McCourty added. "It was, 'OK, let's go. One play, then the next play, then the next play.'"

In yet another stunning turnaround, the Patriots did just that. They chipped away and chipped away and chipped away until they dispatched of the Broncos 34-31 in overtime.

They did so by scoring 31 unanswered points fueled by a Brady-Julian Edelman tandem; by bearing down on Manning and preventing him from hurting them with a "home run" throw; and by benefiting from a fluke Denver special teams error in the game's final minutes that clinched it.

Although it wasn't quite as dramatic as the thriller over New Orleans in Week 6, this win was every bit as important. With the W, New England maintains its one-game lead over the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts for the first-round postseason bye. It also keeps alive the possibility of being the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.

There are enough veterans on the Patriots' roster who understand two halves can be dramatically different and that no deficit with Brady along for the ride is insurmountable.

Brady and his line huddled at the intermission and talked about adjusting some of their schemes to limit the pass rushing effectiveness of Miller and Shaun Phillips.

They also talked about changing the tempo and the momentum of the game as soon as the third quarter began. Score first. Score quickly. Edelman said the team has been simulating that exact scenario for weeks now. When asked specifically how they did that, Edelman smiled and answered, "You've got to ask coach. I don't want to get in trouble."

Whatever they practiced, it worked. New England marched 80 yards on the first series of the third quarter and cashed in with a 5-yard TD pass to Edelman.

Edelman, seen as a potential replacement for Welker, ended up on injured reserve last season. Then New England went out and signed Danny Amendola to make us all forget about Wes and his uncanny chemistry with Brady. (Sorry, but that still hasn't worked for me.)

Edelman stole the headlines from both his former and current teammate by snatching nine balls for 110 yards and two touchdowns. His second touchdown grab, which gave New England a 28-24 lead, was positively Welkerish in its design and Edelman's execution of the play.

New England Patriots
Shane Vereen (34) and Stevan Ridley (22) celebrate a touchdown by Brandon Bolden (38) that pulled the Patriots within 24-14.

In the meantime, the Patriots' defense held Manning to a single touchdown in the final half. Moreno wound up with 224 yards rushing before injuring his ankle late in the game, but McCourty said he was never tempted to take the bait and overcommit to the run.

"You can't,'' McCourty said. "You're talking about Peyton Manning. I truly believe what we practice against every day helps us. There's no time in practice that we ever say, 'Forget the pass, forget Brady. Let's stop the run.' That's not going to happen.'''

Brady checked out with 334 yards, three TDs, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 107.4. Conversely, Manning left town with 150 yards, two TDs, one pick and a rating of 70.4.

Manning stood helplessly as New England's final punt glanced off his teammate, Tony Carter. Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner pounced on the ball, which led to the game-winning field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

"I hated the way that game ended, with us not getting a chance to get our hands on the ball,'' Manning lamented.

That's what happens when there are seven turnovers in a game.

Ridley's third fumble in as many games left him a forlorn figure on the sideline. At some point, he knows, he will run out of opportunities to redeem himself.

"The big thing is we fought back from 24 down,'' Ridley said. "If we had ended up with a loss on top of all this, I think my life would have been that much worse.''

Players in both locker rooms said handling the football was like trying to corral a rock. But, Ridley said, "I really don't like excuses. It was freezing. It was cold. But Denver played with a cold ball too.

"We can't make excuses. We have to fix our mistakes, and over the last few weeks I haven't been doing that. For me, I've got to get back to the drawing board and keep grinding.

"I've got to keep working hard. I've got to believe my best football is in front of me.''

The Patriots believe their best football is in front of them too. Sunday night's rousing victory over Denver was the biggest comeback in their storied history.

Put that on your toast and butter it.