Final score: Broncos 31, Patriots 34
Football is a game of inches. But you can call it a game of quirkiness, too.
In a matchup that seemingly contained everything -- two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, two great teams, a 24-point comeback, a running back going for two bills and overtime -- our ninth top game of 2013 came down to a squirrelly bounce on a simple punt.
No, there was not some dynamic return that resulted in a game-winning touchdown. No crushing hits that jarred the ball loose. And no, this was not about Wes Welker's glorious return to Foxborough as receiver/returner, a place where he once caught over 600 balls in six years.
You see, this was about a ball Welker didn't catch ... or even field for that matter. At least he tried to make a play on that infamous drop in Super Bowl XVI. No, this Patriots punt hung up in the wind for a long time, and poor Welker got caught in no man's land for a spell.
Standing inside his own 10, Welker hesitated, ran up to catch the punt, hesitated again, then backed off ...
By the time Welker decided he couldn't adjust to Ryan Allen's rapidly descending boot, it was mere inches from the ground. Teammate Tony Carter's right thigh wasn't far off. The ball hit the Gillette carpet, bounced up and grazed Carter enough for everyone to know the leather was LIVE.
The Patriots recovered and that was all she wrote. A couple of obligatory Tom Brady "runs" later and Stephen Gostkowksi trotted out to seal the deal.
So let's get this straight: in a game featuring the AFC elite, two of the best quarterbacks to ever lace 'em up and a rousing comeback in front of a national audience, Broncos-Patriots was decided by a rookie free agent's punt that bounced of an undrafted backup's leg and was recovered by a former sixth-round defensive back with no relevant statistics to his name.
Football: a game of inches, a game of specialization, a game of weird.
After Denver punted following a Patriots touchdown drive, Brady marched his offense once again to set up a Gostkowski field goal. Yet, those all-important three points (that put New England up 31-24) would have never happened if Wesley Woodyard holds on to this hot potato. Maybe that's why he's in Tennessee these days.
While Tom Brady was outstanding in the second half's developments, it sure is inconvenient to call an oft-mediocre running back the Most Valuable Player of Manning-Brady XIV. Yet, give Knowshon Moreno some serious props.
While the Broncos lost the game because of Welker's gaffe, don't blame the running back. Despite handling the ball a total of 38 times, none of Denver's five fumbles had anything to do with him. He ran hard and put his team in position to win.
Allen deserves some love for his performance on this cold 22-degree night ... and with a wind gusting around at 22 miles per hour. That made the air feel like six degrees, which meant Allen was booting one hard#$% football. Besides putting some funky English on the kick that crossed Welker all up, Allen averaged 44.5 yards on six punts. The Broncos got all of 13 yards returning his forays into the night. Nice job.
Now, tell me the punting game is not the most underrated aspect of pro football.
How often do you think Peyton Manning has thrown for 150 yards or less in a game, especially one that went into overtime and he went the distance? Take a look at the stat board to see how rare that has been during his 15 years of taking snaps.
Manning's loss to Brady made him a woeful 4-10 for his career. However, it should be noted that the elder quarterback got one back in the win column when he torched the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
To tell the truth, there wasn't as much of a tentacle reach from Broncos-Patriots as you might anticipate. Because of some close losses, like to the Jets in New York, New England -- even with this win -- would not catch Denver in the race for home-field advantage. What did come out of this contest, however, was the exposure of New England's putrid run defense on a national stage. The Pats clearly missed Vince Wilfork and Jerrod Mayo.
Meanwhile, Denver proved once again that the biggest factor in its inability to go all the way in this Elway-Manning era is turnovers ... four against the Patriots on this night, and four more versus the Seahawks two months later.
NFL Network will feature games No. 10 through No. 1 in an all-day marathon from 6 a.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET, Sunday, July 6.
-- by Elliot Harrison. Follow Elliot on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.