Foxboro, MA – In a matchup of two of the game's marquee quarterbacks, the New England Patriots' ground attack proved to be the difference-maker.
Second-year running back Stevan Ridley rushed for a career-high 151 yards and one touchdown, helping New England beat the Denver Broncos, 31-21, at Gillette Stadium.
One hiccup for Ridley was a fumble he lost with 5:19 to play in the fourth quarter. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw three touchdown passes to Tom Brady's one score through the air and outgained his New England counterpart, 345-223, led his club into the red zone, looking to make it a one-possession game.
On 2nd-and-10 from the 14-yard line, Manning handed the ball off to Willis McGahee and New England's Rob Ninkovich forced his second fumble of the game to hinder the rally.
Brady, who did run for a touchdown, then completed a 9-yard pass to Wes Welker, the last of his game-high 13 receptions, on 3rd-and-3, and the Patriots ran out the clock.
Welker finished with 104 receiving yards and caught a touchdown pass for New England (3-2), which has won two in a row after a two-game-skid. The losing streak begin with a setback in its home opener to Arizona in Week 2. The Patriots followed up a loss at Baltimore by routing the Bills in Buffalo last week.
The last time the Patriots dropped consecutive home games came in 2008, when they lost in overtime to the New York Jets on Nov. 13 and then Pittsburgh on Nov. 30.
Even though Manning's stats were more gaudy for fantasy owners, the win upped Brady's record in the head-to-head meetings between the two quarterbacks to 9-4.
"It's a good win against a very good team," Brady said. "The Broncos have a hell of a team in all three phases and I thought we really stood up to them, so it's a good win for us."
Demaryius Thomas was Manning's favorite target, making nine grabs for a game- high 188 yards. McGahee had 51 yards on 14 carries and totaled the same amount of yards on five catches for Denver (2-3).
Trailing 31-7 late in the third quarter, Broncos wideout Eric Decker capped a 10-play, 90-yard drive with 2-yard touchdown catch.
Denver turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, however, as a wide-open McGahee dropped a pass that would have certainly prolonged the drive.
Brady then fumbled while being sacked on fourth down. Offensive lineman Nate Solder recovered the ball at his own 43-yard line.
Given a short field with which to work, Manning carved up New England's defense and trimmed Denver's deficit to 10 with a 5-yard TD pass to Brandon Stokley with 6:43 left.
The first big play of the game belonged to Manning, who connected with Thomas on a downfield strike. Patriots safety Sterling Moore punched the ball out of Thomas' hands from behind, however, and returned the fumble 14 yards to the New England 17-yard line.
The Patriots wound up punting, but Brady capped the next offensive series, a 12-play, 84-yard march, with an 8-yard TD toss to Welker.
Denver answered by moving the ball 80 yards in 10 plays. New England cornerback Devin McCourty was flagged for pass interference on third down in the end zone, and the penalty set up Joel Dreessen's short TD catch 55 seconds into the second quarter.
New England produced 10 points on its next two possessions, both of which featured at least 14 plays and included key third-down conversions early in the drives.
Brady moved the chains with a 14-yard completion to Welker on 3rd-and-10 at the New England 20-yard line, and Danny Woodhead ran around the left guard to convert a 3rd-and-3 from near midfield.
The Patriots wound up regaining the lead on Shane Vereen's 1-yard touchdown run with 7:57 left in the half.
After a Denver punt, New England faced a 3rd-and-14 from its own 11. Woodhead caught a short toss from Brady and turned upfield for 25 yards, but the Broncos' defense ultimately made a goal-line stand as linebacker Von Miller wrapped up Brandon Bolden for a loss on third down.
Stephen Gostkowski then kicked a 23-yard field goal to put New England up 17-7 at halftime.
The Patriots further extended their lead by scoring two touchdowns in an 18- second span during the third quarter.
Brady finished off another lengthy drive with a 1-yard plunge, and Manning fumbled on the first play of the ensuing series. Ninkovich stripped the ball on a sack and Vince Wilfork recovered at the Denver 14.
The turnover led to an 8-yard TD run by Ridley with 4:42 remaining in the frame.
"I think any time you turn the ball over, it hurts you. That is a proven fact and we were minus-two tonight," Denver head coach John Fox said. "Our guys hung in there and fought back, but at the end of the day, it is still minus- two. That usually relates in a point differential."
New England set a new franchise record with 35 first downs... The game marked the first time in NFL history both starting QB's entered with more than 300 career touchdown passes. It also marked only the second time in league history that two QB's with at least 125 career regular-season wins met in a game. The previous matchup featured Miami's Dan Marino against Denver's John Elway on Dec. 21, 1998 ... Brady extended his streak to 37 straight games with at least one TD pass, the third-longest in NFL history. He had been tied with Brett Favre ... New England finished with 251 yards on the ground. It's the first time since 1978 the Patriots have recorded back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. They finished with 247 against the Bills ... Dreessen has caught a TD pass in three consecutive games.