FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At some point, the trail of tail lights leaving the parking lots dimmed. But if those drivers, determined to beat the traffic home during a shocking blowout, had put their cars in reverse on the roads outside Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, it would not have been as sudden a turnaround as what was taking place inside.
Inside, the New England Patriots -- whose first-half dysfunction had drawn a fan-generated soundtrack of booing -- were making sure the 14th installment of the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry would add to the lore of the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation, by turning their hopes over to Brady to save them again, by ensuring the game would not be so lopsided that Manning would be rendered superfluous.
Brady did save the Patriots from humiliation, and Manning, who completed just 19 of 36 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns wiith one interception, certainly was not superfluous. But in the end, the game was not decided by their brilliance. Their legacies are secure and their Hall of Fame jackets already could be tailored, but their short-term fortunes were determined, instead, by one more catastrophic mistake, this time when the Broncos, back to receive a punt late in overtime, instead watched as Wes Welker, the former Patriot, waved for a fair catch, only to have the ball bounce in front of him into one of his teammates. The Patriots recovered the ball at the Broncos' 13-yard line.
When Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal sailed through goal posts that had been swaying in the wind all night, the Patriots had an improbable 34-31 victory, and the Broncos had a dispiriting loss that makes next weekend's rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs critical for their playoff seeding.
"We say play for 60 minutes, it took a lot more than that tonight," said normally taciturn Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was so ebullient after the game that he actually asked reporters if they had any other questions. "It certainly wasn't a very good first half in any area. We just stuck it out."
Manning had once crafted one of his finest moments on the backs of the Patriots, with a sizzling comeback from a yawning first-half deficit that morphed into an epic second half in a playoff game that ultimately led to his lone Super Bowl title. But this was something else.
This wasn't two teams going back and forth, as had happened in the second half of the 2006 AFC Championship Game. This was one team performing well for one half, then collapsing in the other, and one team sleepwalking through the first 30 minutes before enlivening the game in the second.
This was the Patriots, outmuscled and embarrassed, handing the Broncos a 24-0 halftime lead with three fumbles. Saying at halftime that they needed to just start over, and then scoring 27 points in 17 minutes to take the lead early in the fourth quarter.
"I don't even know how you coach that," Brady said of recovering from the first half.
And then Manning stringing some of his best passes of the season together in a drive that tied the game. And then Belichick taking the wind -- but not the ball -- to start overtime, an unorthodox decision that essentially dared Manning to drive the Broncos into the biting, blustery gusts to beat the Patriots on the first drive of overtime. Belichick once had chosen to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own territory to keep the ball out of Manning's hands. This was the opposite -- he put the ball into Manning's hands but made him deal with a bedeviling wind that was gusting to 20 mph.
The gambit worked. The Broncos couldn't get into the end zone on the first drive to immediately end overtime. And when a Denver overtime drive stalled at the New England 42-yard line, the Broncos opted to punt rather than try a long field goal into wind that was blowing directly at them.
"It was a strong wind," Belichick said. "We just had to keep them out of the end zone. If felt like the wind would be an advantage if we kept them out of the end zone of that drive. The wind was significant."
So was this victory for the Patriots. While their injury-riddled defense was shredded for 280 rushing yards by the Broncos, Brady was masterful in leading the comeback, completing 34 of 50 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Much of the speculation entering the game was how the difficult weather conditions would affect Manning and his closely scrutinized arm strength. For parts of the game, his passes wobbled. But on his touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme and then on the drive that sent the game to overtime, he was crisp and accurate.
It was the Denver defense that failed in the second half, after swarming in the first. Brady was sacked three times in the first half, not at all in the second. And after Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was hurt while contesting a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, Brady was able to find holes to fit in his uncontested passes in the second half.
This might have been the final meeting of Manning and Brady, although from the looks of both teams, it is entirely possible they will meet again in the playoffs that begin in little more than a month. The ledger, for now, stands 10 victories for Brady, four for Manning, the last three to Brady -- and one crushing disappointment Sunday night for Manning.
"They've got a good offense," Manning said. "Tom's a great quarterback. We helped them with some short fields, but give them credit. They made the plays in the second half, and we didn't."
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.