We're officially into the preseason at this point, which means we've officially reached the home stretch of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2014. This is the last one before we reach the ever-coveted Top Three, and as I have said several times throughout this series, in years past this moment would have ranked significantly higher, but the nature of this season means that some moments have no choice but to take a backseat to others.
That doesn't make it any less fun, though.
The list so far:
20. wins a job - and our hearts - with a spectacular preseason.
19. officially arrives in a Week 6 contest against the .
18. The get embarrassed on national television with a 41-14 beatdown at the hands of the .
17. The Patriots sign .
16. Vince Wilfork and Jamie Collins help the Patriots lock up a 1st round bye against the New York Jets.
15. Chandler Jones blocks a Blair Walsh field goal attempt against the Minnesota Vikings to keep the momentum with the Patriots.
14. Rob Gronkowski officially returns to form as the Patriots destroy the Chicago Bears.
13. Darrelle Revis shuts down Calvin Johnson as the Patriots stomp the Lions.
12. Chris Jones finds redemption in the form of a last second blocked field goal against the New York Jets.
11. The Patriots avenge a Week 1 loss by obliterating the Dolphins to secure the AFC East.
10. Julian Edelman's catch and run helps lift the Patriots over the San Diego Chargers.
9. Danny Amendola hauls in a 19 yard touchdown catch on 3rd and goal against the Jets to secure a lead.
8. Jonas Gray rushes for 200+ yards and four touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts.
7. LeGarrette Blount goes off - again - against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
6. Nate Solder rumbles into the end zone off a playaction pass against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
5. Rob Gronkowski bowls over the entire Colts defense on his way to the end zone and a 42-20 rout.
Gronk got the nod for the last one, and while he has to share the spotlight this time, he's definitely the icing on the cake.
4. A spectacular one-handed catch caps off a 43-21 beatdown of the Denver Broncos.
Patriots vs Broncos. Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. AFC Championship rematch. Potential AFC Championship preview. The Week 9 matchup between New England and Denver that saw the 6-1 Broncos come to Foxboro to take on the 6-2 Patriots had all the hype that accompanies the annual Brady/Manning showdown. Denver hadn't scored less than 30 points since their Week 3 loss to Seattle, and New England had just hung 51 on the Chicago Bears the week before. The general consensus was that the winner of this game was more or less a lock for the number one seed in the AFC and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. So by the time kickoff came around at 4:25 on Sunday, November 2nd, most of the football watching world was tuning in to see yet another historic showdown; the last time these two teams met in the regular season, Tommy B orchestrated an epic comeback that represented one of the best games of the 2013 season. Needless to say, everyone was expecting more of the same.
Surprisingly, it was each team's respective defense that took center stage to start the game; both teams traded punts for much of the 1st quarter before a bad kick and a fair catch interference penalty gave New England good field position and they were able to put 3 points on the board. Of course, Peyton Manning pulled a classic Peyton Manning and answered back with a nine play, 80 yard drive in just three minutes that ended with a 1 yard Ronnie Hillman TD. The quarter came to a close with the Broncos up just 7-3, and apparently we had a low scoring game on our hands.
The second quarter, however, had other plans.
Another Gostkowski field goal brought the score to 7-6, and the Broncos once again had the ball. They didn't have it for long, however, as a New England masked blitz confused Peyton Manning and caused him to misread the coverage and throw a pass intended for Demaryius Thomas right into the waiting arms of Rob Ninkovich, who ran the pick back to the Denver 35. Four plays later, Julian Edelman was in the end zone for New England's first TD of the day and the continuation of what would be a 21 point 2nd quarter. Edelman would score again the very next time he touched the ball, an 84 yard punt return for a touchdown off a fumbled snap and a MONSTER block by Tim Wright to spring him (note: it's worth watching the highlight for the subtle nod to the man who forced the punt to begin with). Denver came up empty on their next possession when a FG attempt sailed wide, but forced a New England 3 and out to get the ball back quickly. Finally finding some rhythm, Manning moved Denver down to the NE 34 before the drive stalled and 4th down came up again. Whether it was a lack of confidence in the kicker, a need to get back in the game, or some combination of both, the Broncos decided to go for it on 4th down instead of attempting a field goal. The result? Manning was sacked for a nine yard loss by Akeem Ayers, who lined up on the right side of the line, stunted behind Vince Wilfork, who got a great push and occupied two blockers, and charged in for the takedown. Tommy B took advantage of the opportunity, driving 57 yards in just under two minutes to find Shane Vereen in the end zone with only eight seconds left in the half. Both teams went into the locker rooms with the score at 27-7.
The Broncos were able to get back into the game early in the 3rd quarter, when a Tom Brady interception led to an 18 yard Julius Thomas touchdown to bring the score to 27-14. New England answered with a field goal, and Denver got the ball back with the chance to pull the lead down to single digits. However, as he has done so many times in the past when he was on the Patriots, Wes Welker couldn't hang onto Manning's pass and the ball bounced right into the waiting arms of Brandon Browner, who returned the interception all the way to the 10 yard line. On the very next play, Brady hit LaFell for the easy score and the 37-14 lead.
In most cases, when your team is up 37-14 with less than seven minutes to go in the third quarter, it's time to rest easy. However, when it comes to Peyton Manning, no lead is truly safe until the final whistle blows. Manning went 72 yards on just four plays to find the end zone again, needing less than two minutes to do so. Broncos 21, Pats 37. Down just two scores, a quick Patriots punt would put Denver in position to get themselves right back in it.
A quick Patriots punt, however, was not in the cards.
Rather, Brady took the offense 80 yards on 14 plays, eating up the entire rest of the third quarter and continuing on into the fourth. The drive was a masterful amalgam of short, high percentage passes that gained yards in chunks and kept the clock moving, with just enough run sprinkled in to keep the defense honest. As the fourth quarter started, the Patriots were already at the Denver 25 and had only faced a third down twice on the offensive series.
After a quick Brady scramble for four yards to pick up the first down, the Patriots faced a 1st and 10 at the Denver 21. Operating out of a 3 WR, single back package with Vereen in the backfield, Tommy B took the snap and sold the playaction as LaFell and Amendola, both lined up to his left, ran an inside slant and hitch post pattern respectively. Edelman, alone on the right side, ran a simple Go/clearing route towards the end zone. None of these routes mattered, however, because Brady was locked in on Gronk from the getgo. Gronkowski was next to Vollmer on the right side and ran open on the post as the linebackers bit on the playaction. Brady was about to release, but linebacker Nate Irving made a nice recovery and clogged the initial passing lane, forcing Brady to pump fake before the actual release. The pass was high, fast, and behind Gronk, as the pump fake altered the trajectory of Tommy B's hips. Gronk, however, made a spectacular adjustment, reached out the bionic arm, and hauled in a one-handed grab for the ages.
He was down at the one yard line, but would get his score on the very next play when Brady motioned him out wide and forced Von Miller into coverage - a mismatch if there ever was one. The TD grab was Gronk's 50th, tying him with Ben Coates for 2nd most TD receptions by a tight end. Gronk also tied Randy Moss for 2nd fastest to 50 TDs (59 games) in franchise history. The touchdown pass was also Brady's fourth of the day, his 22nd career game with 4+ TD passes, which put him ahead of Dan Marino on the all-time list. New England would go for two, but come up short, and the score stayed at 43-21. Later on in the week, we would hear Tommy B mic'd up for the game, and he too shared his awe regarding how exactly Gronk was able to haul in that pass.
Whenever Brady gets a win over Manning, it's a special moment. Whenever that win represents the Pats having the inside track to the #1 seed and some great momentum heading into the bye, even better. And when the Broncos are touted as the best team in the NFL, a completely unstoppable juggernaut, and more or less a lock to make it back to the Super Bowl by anyone and everyone on the radio and television, to see the Patriots absolutely flatten them in all three phases of the game and slap them up and down the field for three of the four quarters of this game, then this one absolutely belongs at the 4 spot. Add to that one of the best catches of the entire season, and this was an absolute no-brainer.
Check out full game highlights here.