Top 20 Games of 2015: No. 6 -- Patriots at Broncos

Final score: Broncos 30, Patriots 24

I'd like to imagine C.J. Anderson has a motivational poster hanging in his locker that reads: "It's not how you start, it's how you finish." You know the posters I'm referring to. They're plastered across the walls of the career center in every high school and college in America.

See, despite his talent, Anderson struggled at the start of each of the last two seasons. In 2014, he was buried behind the likes of Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman before taking over the backfield late in the season. In fact, from Week 12 on, Anderson led the NFL in both rushing yards (648) and rushing touchdowns (eight).

Heading into 2015, expectations were sky high for Anderson, with plenty of writers even justifying him as a first-round fantasy draft pick. However, Anderson was forced to split carries with Hillman, and lost almost all of his burst/explosion when he suffered ankle and toe injuries in the first few weeks.

Fans were angry (especially those who drafted him in fantasy). "What happened to 2014 C.J. Anderson?!" they'd cry. We were all left scrambling for answers, trying to force whatever narrative seemed right.

However, it we just needed to be patient, and let Anderson get healthy. After all, we should have learned from 2014 - he saves his best for last.

And in 2015, Anderson brought out his best in our sixth top game of 2015, a crucial AFC showdown against the 10-0 New England Patriots.

Peyton Manning was injured, and Brock Osweiler was starting just his second NFL game (he won his first against the Chicago Bears the week prior), but this was different. The playoff implications were big, as Denver couldn't afford to fall behind in the hunt for a first-round bye. And the team had to get past Tom Brady and the Patriots.


Fortunately for the Broncos, Anderson was ready to emerge from his shell. With Osweiler struggling, and getting zero help from receivers not named Emmanuel Sanders (more on that in a second), Anderson picked up the slack.

He ran hard, ran smart, and made the most of every one of his touches. He scored a crucial 15-yard touchdown to keep the Broncos in the game early in the fourth quarter, and kept the chains moving with other tough runs.

Osweiler eventually did his thing, giving the team a lead with 1:09 left to play on a short touchdown toss to Andre Caldwell, but that was simply too much time for Brady. Down 24-21, he moved his team into field goal range and Stephen Gostkowski did the rest. This sucker was headed for overtime, setting up ...

Play of the Game

The Patriots won the toss in overtime, but were stymied by the fierce Denver defense. Per the overtime rules, all Denver needed was a field goal to secure that important "W" over the Patriots. Facing a third-and-1 from New England 48, Gary Kubiak called Anderson's number on a power sweep play to the left. The blocks were good, but Anderson was better. He shot through the hole like he was fired from a cannon, but was still able to fake out Duron Harmon enough to where the only thing he hit was a face full of snow. The Broncos actually scored two separate times using this play, as NBC commentator Chris Colinsworth astutely pointed out. In the second quarter, Ronnie Hillman put Denver on the board running the same play, but in the opposite direction. As trivial as it always seems when coaches site "execution" as a reason for winning or losing a game, this is a prime example of how crucial executing a simple play can be in a game as complex as the NFL.

Historical Symmetry

We all watch, and love, those Sound FX segments on NFL Films. You know the mic'd up stuff where we hear J.J. Watt tell the Saints to put somebody new in at right tackle. Patriots at Broncos featured more of the same. Incidentally, one of the most famous sideline sound full's in television sports came in a Broncos-Patriots game in 1996. New England was a good team, having turned the organization around under Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick.

No matter. Denver wiped them, 34-13, with Shannon Sharpe doing a bit of gloating on the sideline. Sharpe grabbed the phone and exclaimed, "Mr. President, we need the National Guard. We need as many men as you can spare. We are killing the Patriots. Call the dogs off, send the national guard, please, they need emergency help.. Please, Help me slow down!"

The Broncos went on to secure the No. 1 seed, just like 2015. Yet it was New England behind Drew Bledsoe –- Brady's predecessor at QB for the Patriots –- who made it to the Super Bowl that season. - Elliot Harrison


Demaryius Thomas had a night to forget. The Pro Bowl wideout struggled out of the gate, dropping his first 10 targets. He finally caught No. 11, but would finish the night with a forgettable stat line of one catch for 36 yards on 13 targets. Since 1992 (when targets were first recorded), he's the only player to receive 12 or more targets and only catch one pass. For a player of his caliber, this was certainly a strange night.

What if ...

The Patriots fought the good fight in this game, but this was when the injury bug hit them the hardest. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola both missed the game with injuries, and Rob Gronkowski left in the fourth quarter with an injury, too. No NFL team will ever make excuses for a loss, but Patriots fans no doubt were left wondering if their team would have pulled out a different result with one or two of its star pass catchers at full health

Why This Game is No. 6

Two of the top teams squaring off in a late-season overtime thriller, one missing key players and the other starting a backup quarterback ... what more could you ask for? Like any NFL game, this contest featured several lulls, but the overall quality of the game and individual performances were more than enough to push this one near the top five best games of 2015.

Visit NFL Game Center for more highlights and analysis from Patriots at Broncos, Week 12.

-- by Alex Gelhar. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar.

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