By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Chronicler
8:00: Seated in the press box at Gillette Stadium, Woody Paige behind me, the field in front. The seats are only about 10 percent filled 35 minutes before the beginning of the Broncos-Patriots game. Peyton Manning is talking with some skill players in one end zone, Tom Brady is simulating some snaps in the other.
Those guys are good. “Eminence Front” by The Who is playing over the PA, because, you know there haven’t been any good songs written since 1978.
8:04: A quick stroll through the Patriots’ release offers some good nuggets. The Patriots are 84-22 in the second half of seasons under Bill Belichick.
Tom Brady is 3-5 vs. Denver -- the only team that’s had a winning record vs. No. 12. A Patriots win will put them into a tie with Oakland for the most regular-season wins among the original AFL teams. In 2012, Ryan Wendell led the NFL in snaps.
8:07: And now, Denver. The Broncos have had a rookie free agent make the team 10 straight seasons. Jack Del Rio is the Broncos’ fifth interim head coach, joining Mac Speedie, Ray Malavasi, Jerry Smith and Eric Studesville. John Fox has coached 30 Pro Bowlers. Peyton Manning is only 23 wins shy of the regular season record held by Brett Favre (186, to 163 for Manning). Manning is 91-14 when he throws no picks, 72-57 when he does.
8:11: Some rap is playing now, as if to balance The Who. Oh wait, it’s over, now we’ve got some Cheap Trick. Whew. That was close. We almost embraced music made in the last 30 years.
8:13: Always fun to look for the most obscure jerseys in the stands. Saw a No. 17 Chad Jackson and No. 59 Vincent Brown in the parking lot. In the stadium, there are a smattering of Champ Baileys and Peyton Manning among the Brady, Gronkowski and Mayo duplicates.
8:14: Who is the guy in the No. 83 Patriots Wes Welker jersey rooting for?
8:17: Out in the stadium, the temperature isn’t that bad, but the wind is blowing directly toward the enclosed end of the stadium -- and it is strong. In the upper deck, a gust blew me back a step. Back to the press box it is.
8:20: Here come the cheerleaders, dancing to … “R-O-C-K in the USA?” I had forgotten that song even existed.
8:23: The Broncos enter the stadium to some boos and a Welker highlight package. Seems like there’s more love than hate for Welker here -- he’s getting a mild round of applause from the crowd, still only about 30 percent present 10 minutes before game time.
8:30: The Patriots won the toss, giving the Broncos the ball first. “Have a good night, men,” says ref Gene Steratore.
8:32: An excellent, respectful anthem delivered by Army National Guard Major Jerome “Scott” Loring of New Hampshire, replaced quickly with “For Those About to Rock,” a.k.a. the anthem of football. I promise, no more P.A. music talk for awhile.
8:34: Steve Gostkowski’s kick sails deep in the end zone, unreturnable as usual. Gostkowski is a huge asset for this team.
8:35: First play of the game, 12-yard-run Knowshown Moreno, followed by hurrying up to the line. Game on.
8:37: Good tackling by Jamie Collins and a drop by Demariyus Thomas lead to a punt. Perfect start for New England, which needs to get off to a good start.
8:40: The fans in the club sections are mostly braving the elements in the seats rather than boxes, which goes a bit counter to their reputation as fair-weather types.
8:41: Patriots pick up a third down with their best personnel group: Vereen, Gronkowski, Amendola, Dobson and Edelman.
8:42: Two third downs, two conversions on passes to Shane Vereen; this offense is like night and day with Vereen in the mix.
8:43: The ball goes flying out of RIdley’s hands, and that’ll probably be the night for him.
8:44: Von Miller gets the ball in the open field, 60-yard touchdown run, and ladies and gentlemen, the Broncos would like to remind you that they are more than just Manning. While Miller didn’t do much more than just pick up the ball and run, he brings another dimension to this defense and this team..
8:45: Patriots fans boo Ridley.
8:48: The wind is strong enough that big-legged Matt Prater can only get it to the 6.
8:50: Teams that score defensive touchdowns win the game over 80 percent of the time.
8:52: We’re 5:38 into the game, the Broncos have now recovered two fumbles. Denver gets the ball at the 10, thanks to the sack/strip by Miller, and within two plays are in the end zone courtesy of Moreno. 14-0. And home field advantage in the AFC goes to …
8:54: I’m imagining Patriots fans who paid $300 a seat to sit out in a wind-chill of 6 degrees are probably regretting it right now.
8:59: Wow. Three fumbles lost in seven minutes? The Broncos must be wondering when the real Patriots are going to show up … and hoping they don’t.
9:01: Why do people keep showing up for football games? Because you never, ever know what’s going to happen. The team that’s taken care of the ball better than any in the NFL over the last decade just lost it three times in seven minutes.
9:04: In other good news for Denver, the offensive line is pushing the New England DL around on run plays (which is basically all they’ll need to run if they can make it 21-0).
9:05: Big third-down for both teams, 3rd and 3 at the 27 for Denver.
9:06: Bigger for Denver: they get it.
9:07: The crowd in Foxboro is still awake -- a sack of Manning inside the red zone gets a big roar up. They know that a 17-0 deficit is a hell of a lot better than 21-0.
9:08: Odd give up ca for the Broncos, 3rd and goal from the 15 draw play, setting up Matt Prater’s 27 yard field goal. Manning has thrown two passes and Denver is up 17-0. Just like they drew it up.
9:10: Via @ESPNStatsInfo: the Patriots are the first team to lose 3 fumbles in the first quarter of a game since 2007.
9:14: Can’t think of another error in sports that almost always results in a benching other than a running back fumbling. They should really not do that.
9:17: The Patriots decide to punt at midfield, a little surprising, but I guess they haven’t really inspired too much confidence with their offensive attack.
9:19: The Broncos ran the ball 13 straight times before picking up a third-down with a completed pass.
9:20. The gameclock and play clock are down. @FakeBillbelichick Tweets: “Hopefully they’ll turn off the scoreboard next.”
9:23: Denver is pretty much just running a draw trap every play. This is like Georgia Southern’s win at Florida right now.
9:24: New England’s defense is keeping the Patriots alive right now, but barely: Manning is 4 of 6 for 9 yards
9:27: Patriots have the ball on their own 21 after TWO fumbles, both by Julian Edelman, recovered first by him and then by teammate Michael Buchanan.
9:28: According to http://wp.advancednflstats.com, the Broncos are a 94-percent favorite to win at this point.
9:30: A 33-yard run by New England’s Brandon Bolden, followed by a 10-yard reception. No fumbles on either.
9:33: New England goes for it 4th and 5 at the Denver 30 … empty backfield … no one open … too high for Danny Amendola … turnover on downs.
9:39: Denver’s offense isn’t taking many chances, a good move considering the weather, score and Manning’s history. But a 31-yard pass to Montee Ball on 3rd and 20, followed by a big run by Moreno to the 15 has this game on the verge of being over before it really started.
9:44: And a 10-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Tamme makes it 24-0 with 6:10 to go in the half.
9:45: In the lower bowl of Gillette, a guy in a Brady jersey is standing next to a guy in a Manning jersey. Wonder what that conversation is like.
9:47: The Patriots have fumbled six times, officially. In 2011, they only lost five fumbles all year.
9:48: Miller sacks Brady -- it’s going to be open season on No. 12 from here on out.
9:50: The Patriots punt on 4th and 6 from their own 43, prompting some boos. It’s probably the right decision, but the fact that it was even in the discussion is a pretty good commentary on the bizarreness of this game.
9:52: “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake won the contest to be played during the break. Congrats!
9:55: Amazing how quickly this has turned into what feels like garbage time. The most hyped game of the year, and it feels like the second quarter of Florida State-Idaho.
9:59: Big stop for the Patriots (relatively) to keep the Broncos’ lead at 24-0.
10:02: It’s probably worth noting that San Francisco had a 31-3 lead early in the third quarter last year in Foxboro, and New England came back to tie it.
10:07: Halftime! Hemlock on sale at the concession stands for Patriots fans, 40 percent off.
10:16: It’s worth noting that the Broncos will have the best offensive AND best defensive pilayer in the playoffs; unless JJ Watt and the Texans pull off the greatest miracle run of all time, Miller is the best this league has to offer.
10:17: I just spilled half a Diet Pepsi on my lap in the press box, but contained it so quickly on my dark fleece that I honestly don’t think anyone noticed. Go me.
10:18: Wide receivers had a total of four catches in the first half (two by Edelman, one by Welker and Decker.)
10:22: And we’re off …
10:29: Where was that in the first half? New England got the ball at its own 20 and efficiently marched down the field, scoring in 3:39 to give the game a completely different feel. Eight plays, 80 yards, deficit down to 17. A new ballgame? Not quite, but the outcome is at least in doubt.
10:34: Holy crap! A Montee Ball fumble is recovered by New England (Ball’s issues are the reason Moreno is getting the majority of the reps), and all of a sudden the Patriots have the ball at the Denver 32.
10:37: New England facing a 3rd and 3 at the Broncos’ 14, complete to Rob Gronkowski to the inch line.
10:38: After a Vereen attempt goes nowhere, Brandon Bolden gets in to make it 24-14.
10:39: And the press box is filled with the sound of rewrites …
10:42: The Broncos’ win probability is down to 82 percent.
10:43: That wind is pretty spectacular -- Gostkowski could barely get the kick inside the 20 yard line, a guy who normally kicks it in to the end zone every time. Yet this is the same wind the Patriots just scored twice into.
10:48: Peyton Manning’s fumble on third down leads to a punt back to New England. Nine fumbles now, with 17 minutes left to play.
10:51: The Patriots are quickly at midfield, looking like a completely different team. Tom Brady has all day to throw and completes a strike to a wide open Edelman all the way down to the eight.
10:57: After a TV timeout, Brady connects with Gronkowski for a touchdown, and …. wow. It’s 24-21, time still left on the clock in the third, the crowd jumping up and down to “Thunderstruck.”
11:02: Holy f---! Logan Ryan picks off Manning, the Patriots have 1st and 10 at the Denver 30, wind at their backs. If this isn’t the damndest thing I’ve ever seen, it’s close.
11:05: The comeback is complete … Edelman catches a quick one in the flat, fakes two DBs out of their cleats and it’s 28-24 Patriots.
11:07: I think Twitter just blew a fuse.
11:07: For all of Manning’s greatness, it’s a moment like this where the great ones rise to the occasion -- will he?
11:10: It’s a three and out, and New England has the ball in Denver’s end after a great return by Edelman. In the battle of Edelman vs. Welker, it’s Edelman (5-74) over Welker (3-26).
11:12: The Patriots show no sign of letting up, already in the red zone.
11:17: A holding penalty on Matthew Mulligan looms large, backing the Patriots up to the 32 on a windy night. But an illegal hands to the face call on Denver gives New England a first down. If they can go up 10 with 7-8 minutes on the clock, is it … over?
11:19: Kenbrell Thompkins has been mostly on the sidelines the last month, but he’s making some big contributions for the Patriots in the second half.
11:20: What would a loss here do to Denver? Is it a blip on the radar of something bigger, or does it derail them? And what does a win do for New England? Considering how soft their final five games are, it could give them home field in the AFC.
11:21: Huge play, as Brady misses Edelman on a third-down play in the end zone, bringing out the field-goal unit. 31-24, 7:37 left.
11:22: You have to say, overtime seems like the only logical conclusion for this one.
11:26: Huge, and correct call, as an interception by Aqib Talib is called back because Talib held Demariyus Thomas on the play.
11:29: With the Broncos driving, Wes Welker drops a sure first down. A holding call on the next play puts the Broncos back near midfield, and the momentum is stalled.
11:31: Beautiful catch by Thomas at the sideline, and it’s 3rd and 5 … can Manning do it?
11:32. Answer: Yes. He squeezes into a spot about the size of a toaster oven to Jacob Tamme for a first down. What a game.
11:33: Manning’s face is red as a beet. He might lose a cheek.
11:34: Timeout. “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasts through the PA. This time, they got one right.
11:35: Third down, it’s incomplete… but there’s a flag for pass interference. Drive alive.
11:35: Touchdown pass to Thomas in the corner of the end zone, it’s all tied up. Yawn. Just another game.
11:36: Writer in the press box: “This is not how I want to die.”
11:38: I enjoyed that 50 second rest. Ready for the final push.
11:39: 1st and 10 at the 20. 3:06 to go. The crowd isn’t silent -- it’s still, as if moving might throw the universe off kilter.
11:40: All of a sudden, it’s 3rd and 5, and the Patriots could be punting it back to Manning with timeouts and time remaining. Play of the game upcoming after the 2:00 warning.
11:43: New England punts. On you, Peyton.
11:46: 48 seconds left … Manning incomplete pass on second down. OT sounds good to Patriots fans right now.
11:47: Incomplete to Thomas, and Denver has to punt.
11:49: And we’re headed to overtime, folks.
11:51: Wow. The Patriots win the toss but choose the wind over the ball, an interesting call that makes some sense … and doesn’t make sense. In any case, a win is in Manning’s hands.
11:53: Matt Prater trying a few warmup kicks into the wind, looks like he’s comfortable out to 50.
11:54: I kind of don’t even believe what I’m seeing.
11:55: The Broncos go back to their bread and butter, the draw trap, to start the OT. And again, for 8 and 18 yards. Moreno has single-handedly kept the Broncos’ offense afloat.
11:57: The draw trap works again, sertting up 3rd and 4 at the NE 48.
11:59: After the Patriots stop the Broncos’ inches short of a first down, Belichick accepts the offensive pass interference penalty – a second unorthodox call, after the decision to defer after winning the coin toss. It pays off – Talib makes a beautiful play on a deep ball to Thomas, and New England has the ball on their own 18 needing to get into field goal range with the wind at their backs.
12:00: It’s midnight, mofos. Next point wins.
12:01: Strike to Gronk. First down. The crowd almost doesn’t register it – they are spent. It’s cold. This might be the greatest, craziest regular season of all time. Remember when it was Florida State-Idaho?
12:02: Incomplete, and Brady doesn’t like the lack of a flag one bit. Upon replay, it was pretty close.
12:03: Clearly, the calls in losses to New York and Carolina are on the mind of a certain Patriots QB.
12:04: Another big third down. I’m almost starting to root for a tie.
12:05 Deep pass to Edelman falls incomplete – Brady had all the time in the world, but chose to go for the big one instead of looking underneath. One of his few bad decisions in what’s been a pretty flawless game,
12:06: The crowd is chanting “WEL-KER, WEL-KER.”
12:07: 1st and 10 Denver at its own 13 after a big punt by Allen.
12:08: Moreno now has 202 yards rushing. That’s a lot.
12:09: Big third-down pickup, then another long run for Moreno followed by him limping off the field. Huge blow for the Broncos.
12:11: He’s back in, after the 10th fumble of the game courtesy of Anderson. The Broncos pick up a first down, and they’re at the 40 … need another 5 at least?
12:12: Boring game.
12:13: Welker drops it on a nice play by Talib, and here comes the punting unit … if it does come to a tie, it’s more like a win for Denver, which would keep a two-win edge in the AFC top seed race.
12:16: Patriots get the ball on their own 20, and Tom Brady comes out to a fatigued round of applause. 4:50 to go. Big play to Edelman, who has been a difference maker for New England.
12:17: New England win probability 62 percent.
12:18: The 1,000th key first down, 1st and 10 at their own 37 yard line. I can’t wait to watch this again on DVR.
12:19: New England has to punt, and they might not get the ball again.
12:20: And in a game that couldn’t get any weirder, the punt hits a Denver player, it’s recovered by the Patriots at the Denver 13 and the Patriots just need a field goal to win.
12:21: Press box humor: “Put in Ridley.”
12:22: The Patriots are going to run a play and then assumedly kick it. Why even run a play? Why ask why?
12:23: Patriots win probability 92 percent.
12:22: Gostkowski to try the field goal.
12:22: Denver calls time out to ice the kicker. It’s 2 degrees for Chrissake, how much colder can he get?
12:23: If he hits it, this will be the biggest comeback in Patriots history.
12:23: And, in another piece of oddness, the Patriots run another play to take it to the 2:00 in case Gostkowski misses.
12:24: This is right where Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yarder to send the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 2011.
12:25: I have to piss. I’m not going to.
12:26: The kick is up… AND IT’S GOOOOOD! Patriots 34, Broncos 31. Greatest, longest, coldest, weirdest game you’ll ever see.
12:26: Referee Steratore gets on the mic to say the words that are bittersweet relief: “This is the end of the game.” And what a game it was.