Facing Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots trailed 24-0 at halftime. Yet, miraculously, the Patriots came back and won the game. They scored 31 straight points, and were eventually victorious late in overtime, 34-31.
Is there a game that defines "The Patriot Way" better than this one?
I don't believe there is.
Many people, including some former players, call "The Patriot Way" a media-manufactured myth. Others think it's the perfect blueprint for how to run a winning organization.
Either way, Sunday night's victory over the Broncos perfectly exemplified what is expected of a player under head coach Bill Belichick, and what it means to follow his teachings.
In fact, "The Patriot Way" might even be a real thing.
This philosophy allows for very little room for error. Traditionally, if an error is made, a player is benched, or a scheme is drastically changed. There were four clear instances of this last night.
First, was running back Stevan Ridley, who lost a fumble for the fourth time this season, and the third time in the past three weeks. Ridley spun into the hole, and fumbled the ball after only minuscule contact with Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Then Von Miller recovered it and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown. 7-0 Denver.
Enough was enough. After only five snaps, Ridley was benched for the rest of the game.
Two plays later, Broncos linebacker Von Miller zipped pass left tackle Nate Solder, reached his arm out, and stripped Tom Brady, forcing the ball loose. Shortly thereafter, the Broncos scored again. 14-0 Denver.
Because of Solder's early struggles, the Patriots often had a running back chip Miller when coming out the backfield, though more often than not, Solder seemed to fix the issue by making his own adjustments.
The Patriots then inserted veteran running back LeGarrette Blount into Ridley's place. But on his second carry, Blount was rocked with an uncalled helmet-to-helmet hit. As he fell to the ground, the ball slipped out of his grasp. The Broncos recovered it, and later kicked a field goal, extending their lead to 17-0.
With only two snaps on the night, Blount joined Ridley on the bench. Brandon Bolden was inserted into the lineup, and he went on to touch the ball 14 times for 69 yards and one touchdown. Most importantly, he didn't fumble the ball. Problem solved.
But after another two New England drives that resulted in no points, Denver put together a long 11-play drive, which resulted in another touchdown. On 3rd-and-5, second year linebacker Dont'a Hightower was supposed to push tight end Jacob Tamme off of his seam route, but he missed, which allowed him to have a free release for an open 10-yard touchdown. It was now 24-0.
Hightower would go on to play zero snaps in the second half, as veteran Dane Fletcher took his spot and played the best game of his NFL career.
There were four crucial errors that led to 24 points for the Broncos in the first half, yet four perfect corrections that put the Patriots in position to make a comeback.
But no matter how many corrections are made, many teams would roll over and die when they are down by 24 points. After all, teams trailing by 24 points or more at halftime were 5-485 in the history of the NFL.
(Never mind the fact that their opponent featured one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Peyton Manning, who happens to be having the most productive season of his Hall of Fame career.)
But not the New England Patriots. Not when Tom Brady is your quarterback. Not when Bill Belichick is your head coach.
Not this team.
The Patriots came out determined in the second half. Tom Brady capped off a 7-for-7 drive with a sensational 5-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman. It was now 24-7.
But then, after Denver began to move the ball, Dane Fletcher proved why he was right choice at linebacker. Montee Ball caught a pass in the open field, and Fletcher came firing in, aiming his shoulder at the ball, knocking it loose. Subsequently there was a scrum for the ball before Brandon Spikes recovered it.
Six plays later, the Patriots scored again after a Brandon Bolden run. With 5:40 to go in the third quarter, they were down by only 10 points, at 24-14.
After the defense stepped up and stopped the Broncos once again, it took the Patriots only five plays to score, after Rob Gronkowski posted up in the end zone like an NBA power forward. It was now 24-21 at the start of the fourth quarter.
In just under 15 minutes, the Patriots managed to thrust themselves right back into the game.
You could feel the momentum shift, especially after seeing Brady and Gronk overcome with emotion during their touchdown celebration.
It almost felt like the good old days again, back when Peyton Manning turned into Ryan Leaf when the temperature dropped below freezing.
Next drive, a brilliant corner-blitz call by Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia flustered Peyton Manning, forcing him to attempt a risky throw, which rookie cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted.
Three plays after that, Julian Edelman caught a 14-yard pass and leaped into the end zone like a superhero. Somehow, someway, the Patriots now led the game 28-24 with 13:13 to go in the fourth quarter.
Ah, maybe it still is the good old days.
Later, the Patriots kicked a field goal, extending their lead to 31-24.
The Broncos received the ball and on their first play from scrimmage, Aqib Talib intercepted a pass, seemingly ending the game, but a penalty flag was thrown. The Broncos kept the ball and managed to score after a long, tedious drive. It was tied up once again, at 31-31.
It was a defensive battle for the rest of the fourth quarter, which is partially what led to Bill Belichick's decision in overtime.
The Quirky Genius
Over the years, Bill Belichick has received heat from the media and fans for various decisions, most infamously his choice to go for it on 4th-and-2 in 2009. When Belichick made that decision, it was based on the thought that he didn't want to give Peyton Manning the ball.
Oh, but how the tides turned last night. The Patriots won the toss to begin overtime, and they were expected to receive the ball, but that wouldn't be the case.
With harsh 25 mile per hour winds, and the temperature nearing 0 degrees, Bill Belichick decided to take the wind, allowing the Broncos to receive the ball first.
Many people, including myself, weren't so sure if this was the right decision (I'm still not), but it worked out.
Coach Belichick says that he believes there was a 20-yard difference in terms of potential field goal distance, and he felt that his defense could at least keep the Broncos out of that range.
Peyton Manning appeared to have difficulty passing the ball into the wind throughout four quarters, and the secondary was playing a sensational game. Belichick bet that this would continue in overtime.
And it did, twice. The Patriots' defense stood tall and did their job, allowing the Broncos to reach their 37-yard line, but no further.
But unfortunately, the Patriots' offense was unable to establish anything despite having the wind at their backs. With 3 minutes and 11 seconds left in overtime, Ryan Allen had to punt it back to the Broncos.
As the punt sailed through the air, former New England receiver Wes Welker backed off, signaling for his new Denver teammates to avoid the bounce. Special teamer Tony Carter sprinted towards the ball, the punt bounced off the turf, and then off of his leg.
Nate Ebner, punt protector for the Patriots, then pounced on the loose ball, recovering it on the 13-yard line.
What a miracle. It looked like the Broncos would receive one last chance possession, but they wouldn't after this stroke of luck.
The offense came on the field, and Tom Brady centered the ball. The field goal unit was then sent out to win the game.
Danny Aiken snapped the ball, Ryan Allen secured the hold, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski boomed it through the uprights. It was only a 31-yard field goal, but after such a lengthy, implausible, and unbelievable football game, you never know what could possibly happen.
But it was over, finally. The New England Patriots completed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the NFL, overcoming a 24-point deficit, defeating the Denver Broncos, 34-31.
"The Patriot Way" preaches reliability, and that mistakes must be corrected if players or coaches make them. Sunday night, the Patriots did exactly that.
It also asks all those involved to never give up on a game, to play 60 minutes, and to do their job, just like their quirky genius, Bill Belichick, teaches.
This should happen no matter the circumstances, especially because luck might bounce your way, helping you win a game.
With a little help from good fortune, the New England Patriots fulfilled the criteria required by "The Patriot Way," and were rewarded with a historic victory.
Maybe "The Patriot Way" is as real as it appears to be.