Well folks, this is it. This is what it all comes down to. It has been a long, grueling, and highly exciting offseason, but we're finally just hours away from the first preseason game of the year between the Patriots and Redskins and the first real feeling that the 2014 season is underway. And as the preseason officially commences, it's time to close the books on the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2013, as we've finally reached number one. Much like last year's top moment, I have a feeling that most people had a pretty good idea what would end up taking the one slot way back when I first started this list, and while I was really, really hoping that I would be writing an article about Tommy B hoisting Lombardi Trophy number four right around this time, it just wasn't meant to be. However, as I have repeated over and over again throughout this series, this past year was an absolute blast to watch and featured one of the most likeable Patriots teams I can remember, and The Number One Most Memorable Patriots Moment of the year combines the toughness, winning mentality, and fortitude that we all came to love so much with one of the greatest comebacks in team history and yet another amazing chapter in the ongoing Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry. When Manning and Brady retire and we are relentlessly bombarded with Brady vs. Manning retrospectives, this game is certainly going to take its rightful place right near the top of the list.
But that's a discussion for later. For now, it's time to relive one of the most satisfying wins I have ever had the pleasure of watching live. But first, the list so far:
19. and help the Patriots lock up a sloppy home opener against the .
18. and depart for Denver and jail, respectively.
17. makes a huge one-handed TD grab just before halftime against the .
16. The Patriots lose in OT to the Jets, courtesy of an interesting new rule
15. bowls over the entire defensive line for a rushing touchdown.
14. leads a 4th quarter comeback drive against the to win the 2013 season opener.
13. emerges as a receiving threat with a two touchdown day against the .
12. A highly questionable non-PI call costs the Patriots a Monday Night Football game against the .
11. and team up for a volleyball-style interception against the Miami Dolphins.
10. New England engineers a huge second half comeback against the Miami Dolphins.
9. Aqib Talib shuts down and in a primetime matchup against the .
8. has 100+ rushing yards and 58 yards receiving on a broken arm in a comeback win against the Buffalo Bills.
7. The Patriots put up 55 points in their historic beatdown of the .
6. goes beast mode against the Buffalo Bills to lock up the 2 seed in the AFC.
5. The Patriots travel to Baltimore and obliterate the .
4. 4 touchdown day lifts the Patriots past the in the AFC Divisional round.
3. New England scores two touchdowns in the final two minutes to come back against the .
2. Tom Brady hits Kenbrell Thompkins in the end zone with 10 seconds left to play to secure a win against the .
And now, without further ado, it's time to unveil Number One.
1. New England erases a 24 point halftime deficit against the Peyton Manning led Broncos and engineer a 34-31 overtime victory.
The Denver Broncos team that marched into Foxboro on November 24, 2013 was, according to pretty much every media analyst ever born, the most impressive offensive powerhouse that the NFL has ever seen. They were scoring points at will. They were setting records left and right. They were torching defenses and obliterating everyone in their path. They were greatness and class personified. Never mind that the 2007 Patriots, despite putting up similar numbers and winning by similar point differentials, were viewed as bullies who ran up the score and played in a way that was a disgrace to the overall sportsmanship and competitive nature of the game; Denver was poetry in motion and we were all privileged to watch, in Manning, an absolute master at work on his craft.
The Patriots, on the other hand, were something of a mixed bag. Sure, the Pats were 7-3, but had just come off a controversial Monday Night loss against the Carolina Panthers, had to engineer a come-from-behind win against the Miami Dolphins, dropped a game to the Jets, and couldn't score a single touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals. Nobody quite knew what to make of these Patriots, and as the injuries piled up and the number of names everyone recognized on both sides of the ball became less and less, it seemed to most that Denver was going to be using this Week 12 matchup to make it known to the world who the true power in the AFC was and who was going to have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots were home underdogs for the first time since 2005, and with the temperature at kickoff clocking in at 22 degrees with winds blowing upwards of 30 miles per hour, it was the anticipation of this game and the tremendous star power of its quarterbacks that packed Gillette Stadium that frigid night.
After a decent defensive stand to start the game, everything went downhill with the speed of a greased up Vince Wilfork sliding on a giant soap-covered tarp down a 50 degree incline. New England was moving the ball well, but a huge fumble by Stevan Ridley on 2nd and 3 was recovered by Von Miller and returned 60 yards for a touchdown. To make matters worse, New England only had the ball for 32 seconds on their next possession before, once again on second down, Denver recovered another fumble after a Von Miller strip sack gave the Broncos the ball on the Patriots 10 yard line. Two plays later, Knowshon Moreno would dive into the end zone to put Denver up 14-0 just a little over five minutes into the game. New England needed to settle down and answer back on their next drive, otherwise the game could easily get out of hand.
Instead of settling down and answering back, New England fumbled again, this time after just three plays, when LeGarrette Blount put the ball on the ground and Danny Trevathan recovered. 10 plays and a Denver field goal later, and the score was 17-0.
New England's next drive was a drastic improvement, as it actually ended with a punt. As Ryan Allen took the field for the first time that night, the crowd at Gillette began to applaud, as they were thrilled to see a drive end in something other than a turnover. But as the crowd at Foxboro has done so often, those cheers - however ironic they may have been - quickly turned to boos as Manning engineered yet another scoring drive a few plays later, hitting Jacob Tamme in the end zone to bring the score up to 24-0. As both teams headed for the locker room at halftime, what was pegged as the most exciting game of the year didn't even look like it would be the most exciting game of the day; New England couldn't get a single thing going, Denver seemed to be scoring at will, and New England's defense wasn't getting any time to rest. New England would be getting the ball back to start the third, and if they couldn't put some points on the board, a lot of people would be going to bed early that night.
Luckily, points are exactly what they got, as Brady was able to go 80 yards on just 8 plays, capped off by a beautiful diving one handed grab by Julian Edelman in the end zone. The Patriots were still down three scores, but at least they were on the board. Still, though, Denver didn't seem to be slowing down on the offensive side of the ball, and so nobody was taking the Edelman score as a sign that the ship had suddenly been righted.
However, a Montee Ball fumble on 2nd and 6, recovered by Brandon Spikes, gave the Patriots excellent field position and the opportunity to cut the lead to just 10 points. Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen teamed up to bring the Patriots down to the one yard line, where Brandon Bolden punched it in. New England 14, Denver 24. Those fans in the stands who weren't frozen solid started to show a little life.
Manning almost turned the ball over again on Denver's next drive, as the combination of a frozen ball, windy conditions, and Rob Ninkovich put it on the ground and almost resulted in a Jamie Collins recovery. And while Manning was able to fall on his own fumble, it did force the Broncos to punt, and Tommy B got the ball back on his own 35 ready to go to work.
A quick strike to Kenbrell Thompkins gave New England a new set of downs, and on the ensuing play Brady was able to find Edelman wide open on a deep post for a 43 yard gain to put the ball inside the 10 yard line. Two plays and an all-business Gronk spike later, the Patriots had scored 21 unanswered points and Denver's lead was cut to three. Denver entered into the 4th quarter with the ball and desperately needed to regain some momentum.
What happened instead was a Logan Ryan interception in which Manning misread Eric Decker's timing on the route he was supposed to run and Ryan was able to step in front of it and pick off the ball at the Denver 30 yard line. The Broncos were on the field for all of three plays before New England returned to work on offense The cameras cut to the Bronco sidelines, where many defensive players were seen scrambling to get to their helmets.
Brady needed just three plays to take his first lead of the game: a quick run to Bolden, a 15 yard strike to Gronk, and then a quick out route to Edelman which saw him juke one defender, blow by another, and they lay himself out completely horizontally as he dove into the end zone for his second score of the day. New England 28, Denver 24. To make things better, Denver was held to a 3 and out on their ensuing drive, and New England was able to take almost 5 minutes off the clock and put another 3 points on the board to ensure that a Bronco touchdown would only tie it.
The next Denver drive almost iced the game for the Patriots, as Aqib Talib was able to step in front of a pass intended for Demaryius Thomas and return the ball to the Bronco 10 yard line on the very first play from scrimmage. However, a defensive holding call on Talib turned the pick into a first down, and the Broncos were able to keep driving. New England appeared to have another stop on 3rd and 7 at the New England 17, but a DPI call on Ninkovich once again gave the Broncos new life. You can't give Manning multiple opportunities to hurt you, and he was able to hit Thomas on a perfect 11 yard strike on the very next play to even the score at 31. Thomas's touchdown would be the last points of regular time, and New England and Denver prepared to go to OT.
When Belichick retires and we all look back on his career, there are going to be a number of coaching decisions that he made over the years that were highly controversial and helped to cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats. Starting Brady over Bledsoe in the Super Bowl. Taking a safety in a regular season game against the Broncos to give the punter better field position. Going for it on 4th and 2 against the Colts at his own 28. Cutting Lawyer Milloy just before the start of the 2003 season.The list goes on. And the decision that he made that freezing cold night last November ranks right up there with any other gutsy call he has ever made. He opted to do something that simply isn't done in today's NFL. It goes against all basic instincts and percentage statistics when it comes to overtime victory. But none of that mattered to Bill Belichick.
Bill Belichick wanted the wind.
The Patriots won the coin toss, and they chose to defer. They voluntarily gave Peyton Manning, general of the most prolific offense in NFL history, first crack at a score, knowing full well that one touchdown was all Denver needed to avoid a loss. New England's captains looked to the sidelines multiple times before they told the refs their preference, as nobody could really believe that Belichick would defer possession in overtime. But that's what he wanted, and that's what New England got. The Patriots kicked off, and Denver started from their own 20.
Denver started out moving the ball well on their first possession, but the defense was finally able to generate a stop and force a Denver punt at their own 42. It would appear that Belichick's gamble had paid off. Unfortunately, New England had to punt as well, as a few drops by the young receivers short-circuited the drive. Denver got the ball back at their own 13, and began driving again.
On this drive, Denver found some rhythm. They were able to mix up the run and pass, eventually finding themselves at the New England 37. An incomplete pass - OK, a drop - to Wes Welker on 3rd and 8 meant that, with the wind and the cold being what it is, trying for a long field goal and risking giving New England such great field position simply wasn't in the cards. Denver had to punt, and Brady got another shot. With only five minutes left to play in the game at this point, odds were good that this would be New England's last chance to put any points on the board.
The drive started out well enough, with a 17 yard pass to Edelman (which put him over 100 yards receiving for the third time in his career), but that was unfortunately the only first down of the drive. When Ryan Allen came out to punt with just over three minutes left, the best possible outcome for the Patriots seemed to be a tie.
Allen got off a great kick, high and deep, and the strong Foxboro winds made it difficult for return man Wes Welker to gauge exactly where the kick would come down. Meanwhile, the New England punt unit got a great jump off the line and barreled towards Welker to ensure a strong return didn't set the Broncos up for a field goal. As the ball began its descent, Welker made a judgement call that he was unable to make earlier due to the wind and the trajectory of the punt, realized that the kick was unfieldable, and waved everyone off in order to prevent a turnover. Unfortunately for Denver, Tony Carter got the memo too little, too late, and it bounced directly off him just after it landed. Local legend and Patriots tough guy Nate Ebner was there to fall on it, and the Patriots recovered at the Denver 13.
The stadium went wild. The players celebrated. The camera cut to Peyton Manning just standing there, helmet on and ready to go out, desperately trying to come to grips with what just happened. Brady marched out onto the field, took one play to center the ball and another to dive forward for an extra yard, and Stephen Gostkowski trotted out onto the field on 3rd and 10 for a 31 yard field goal attempt with just over a minute left to play. He split the uprights, and the Patriots won.
Despite the fact that it was absolutely freezing on the streets of Brooklyn that night, my apartment might as well have been a sauna. I had spent the better part of four hours pacing, sweating, swearing, jumping around, and air humping myself into oblivion, and when Ghost nailed that field goal, I threw open the window and gave my neighborhood a very loud war cry that I'm sure everyone appreciated.
Elation received a new meaning that night. My night was saved. My whole week was saved. I was able to go into the few days before Thanksgiving happy and satisfied with the result of the game. I would be able to actually enjoy my holiday without griping over the result. But above all that, I got to see Tommy B beat Peyton Manning one more time - this time in historic fashion.
I don't know about any of you, but I didn't get to bed until around 4 AM that night. I know that the game ended just after 12:30, but I was way too jacked up to even think about sleeping after this one. Plus, there was no way I was missing the game recap, highlights, press conferences, and numerous analyst discussions about how Tommy B got the better of Peyton Manning yet again. There was no way I was going to miss Marshall Faulk on NFL Network try to hide his rage over the Patriots doing what they did, nor was I going to miss all of the talk about Manning's inability to deliver in big games and what this means for the Broncos going forward. I knew then, as I know now, that much of what was said was reactionary garbage designed solely to generate conversation and foster ratings, but at that moment, I fully bought into all of it. I sat there on my couch, smug, self-satisfied, happy and relieved and exhausted yet completely wide awake, and nodded smilingly at everything everyone on TV said. By the time I finally went to bed, I immensely looked forward to wasting an entire day at work reading article after article about how the Patriots did it again, how Brady gets another victory over Manning, and how maybe the Broncos aren't quite what we thought they were. I had every intention of lurking over on the various Denver sites, bathing in their tears and arrogantly smiling at their misery. It isn't a behavior I usually indulge in during the season - it's petty and a waste of time, in my opinion - but I reveled in in that day for sure. It was hands down the best victory Monday in what in actuality was quite a few amazing victory Mondays that took place in 2013, and a game I will remember for either as long as I live or until I drink and eat myself into a coma, whatever comes first.
Yet another comeback win. Yet another prominent display of physicality, next man up philosophy, and never giving up. Yet another reason to love the 2013 Patriots. And on top of all that, to do it against Peyton Manning in such spectacular fashion makes this an easy choice for Number One. And while you don't have to remind me how the rematch ended and who beat who for the right to get absolutely embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, absolutely none of that AFC Championship game takes anything away from just how special this win was. With that win over the Broncos, the Patriots not only reminded the world who the top dog in the AFC still was, but instilled legit, genuine confidence that there was just no stopping them this year. Knock out whoever you want to knock out. Score as many points as you want to score. Do what you will. As long as that clock is ticking, the Patriots will be fighting. And if you put your guard down for one single goddam second, they are going to rip your face off and feed it to you without so much as a second thought. This was the single greatest night of my 2013 football season, and it's right up there with the greatest Brady/Manning showdowns ever. It was the greatest moment of the year, and looking back on it now, writing about it, reliving it through articles, video highlights, and memories, it still gives me chills. I was despondent as I described the Ridley fumble. I found myself smiling as I recapped the Edelman go-ahead touchdown. I was nervous writing about the OT coin flip. And I got that very same feeling in my stomach, that giddy, amazed, almost queasy feeling, as I typed out Ebner's name. It's games like this one that allow us to sit through all of the losing seasons, the last-second losses, the booms, the busts, the heartbreak, and the stress that accompanies following a sports team - a team that, no matter what your sport and no matter who you root for, will ultimately cause you more hurt than happiness. Wins like this one make all of that worthwhile. Being on the wrong end of a game like this one sucks - we all know that all too well - but being on the right side of it is what keeps us going season after season. Watching the full highlights from this game, which you can do here, will always be good for a pick me up. It is the greatest quarterback rivalry in the history of the NFL at its finest, it is yet another bullet in the "I was lucky enough to be around to watch Tom Brady and Peyton Manning play live" gun, and was yet more evidence that I will follow the New England Patriots to hell and back for the rest of my life. It was, to use a tired old phrase, a win for the ages. And I'm very grateful to have watched every awful, gut-wrenching, humiliating, exciting, awe-inspiring, wonderful minute of it.
And with that, we come to the end of my Top 20 Moments series. I hope you all enjoyed reliving this past year as much as I enjoyed writing about it, and hopefully this list offered a few surprises and generated some good conversation along the way. I said it last year, and I'll say it again now: hopefully when I sit down to make my list of the 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2014, the Number One spot will be occupied by the results of a certain game occurring in February.
But that's a tale for another day. For now, let's get the preseason started. Bring on the Redskins.