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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Last fumble loses.
The Denver Broncos opened a 24-point lead on three New England fumbles before coughing up the lead and the game, muffing a punt at their own 13-yard line with 1:56 left in overtime to set up the field goal that gave the Patriots a 34-31 victory on Sunday night.
"Hated the way that ended, not getting a chance to get our hands on the ball," said quarterback Peyton Manning, who rallied the Broncos with a touchdown to force overtime but couldn't move them into field goal position in two tries in the extra period.
Manning was ready for another try when New England punted the ball away with 3:11 left, but Broncos return man — and former Patriots receiver — Wes Welker let the ball bounce and it hit blocker Tony Carter. Nate Ebner recovered for the Patriots, and they ran into the line twice before Stephen Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal ended it.
"I was trying to get away from the ball, but the ball kind of bounced right at me," Carter said. "It was a tough bounce."
It was the fifth fumble — the third that was lost — by the Broncos (9-2).
New England (8-3) had six fumbles, losing three, but all of them were in the first half.
"It was really a tale of two halves," interim Broncos coach Jack Del Rio said. "We forced turnovers and jumped on them early. They forced turnovers and jumped on us at the end."
The Patriots lost fumbles on their first three possessions, but Tom Brady threw for three touchdowns to turn a 24-0 halftime deficit into a 31-24 lead, driving New England to scores on its first five possessions of the second half. The Patriots took the lead when Brady hit Julian Edelman for a TD early in the fourth, and Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal made it 31-24 with 7:37 left in regulation.
Manning threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Demaryius Thomas to tie it at 31 with 3:06 left in the fourth quarter. The Patriots won the toss but opted to kick off to start the overtime, taking the wind instead.
Each team had the ball twice but couldn't score, with the Broncos forced to punt after marching to the New England 37-yard line. "We were probably 5 yards short of where we needed to get to have a realistic chance of getting a field goal," Del Rio said.
The punt left the Patriots at their own 20. They got one first down but stalled and punted the ball away.
"Everything worked out fine where we could take a shot," Del Rio said. "We just had a fluke play at the end."
With the fans mocking Welker, who had been Brady's favorite receiver in their six years together, he decided to let the punt bounce, waving for his teammates to stay out of the way.
On a night with a kickoff temperature of 20 degrees and a wind chill of 6, Manning completed 19 of 36 passes for 150 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He led the Broncos on an 80-yard drive to force overtime, twice rescued by penalties: First when a defensive holding penalty negated an interception, and again when a pass interference on third-and-7 from the Patriots 17 gave Denver a first down.
On the next play, Manning lobbed one to Thomas in the left corner of the end zone to tie it.
Von Miller returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown and then strip-sacked Brady to force another turnover in the first quarter, setting up Knowshon Moreno's 2-yard TD run. Moreno finished with a career-high 224 yards on 37 carries.
When New England got the ball back, it held onto it for just two plays before LeGarrette Blount had the ball knocked loose by safety Duke Ihenacho. Linebacker Danny Trevathan fell on it and was ruled down by contact, negating a return that would have had the Broncos at the Patriots 11.
Instead, Denver settled for Matt Prater's 27-yard field goal that made it 17-0. The Broncos added another touchdown when Manning hit Jacob Tamme from 10 yards out for the only score of the second quarter.
New England had lost five fumbles all season coming into the game and was sixth in the NFL in net turnovers. But Stevan Ridley, who coughed it up on the opening drive, has fumbled in three consecutive games, losing two.
Brady was 21 for 26 for 228 yards and three TDs in the second half of the much-heralded matchup with Manning, leading the Patriots to three straight touchdowns in the third quarter to cut Denver's lead to 24-21 heading into the fourth. He led New England 80 yards for a touchdown to open the second half, thanks to a 33-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski and a 5-yard scoring pass to Edelman.
Montee Ball coughed it up on Denver's next possession, and six plays later Brandon Bolden ran it in from the 1 to make it a 10-point game. A 6-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski with 19 seconds left in the third quarter cut the Broncos' lead to 24-21.
The temperature made it difficult on the players on each side and also could have been the reason that first the play clocks and then the game clocks went out, forcing the referees to keep the official time on the field. The clocks came back early in the second quarter.
Brady and Manning have six regular-season MVP awards between them and three more in the Super Bowl, where they've combined to win four NFL championships. It's the 14th time they've met, with Brady holding a 9-4 edge.
This time, though, Manning had former Patriots receiver Welker on his side. Welker went to Denver as a free agent and he entered the game as the Broncos' leading receiver with 61 catches.
He had four catches for 31 yards.
Both teams had players knocked out of the game: Patriots offensive lineman Marcus Cannon had an ankle injury and Denver receiver Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured his shoulder.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org