FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Patriots trailed 24-0. They had to pretend it was 0-0. It worked.
Drive after successful drive, New England chipped away at that halftime deficit, stopped the NFL’s best offense and stunned the Denver Broncos 34-31 in overtime Sunday night.
Coach Bill Belichick’s message to his still-determined players at intermission?
“Just to take it as a new ballgame,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “Don’t think there is going to be a miracle where you can score a touchdown and it counts as more. So just take it one drive at a time.”
The Patriots had fumbled the ball on their first three possessions of the game. But they scored on their first five of the second half for a 31-24 lead.
That surge stemmed from a simple philosophy.
“No matter what the score is, just keep going. That should be the motto for everyone,” defensive end Chandler Jones said Monday. “For any team and not just for our team, any team that saw us play the other night. I’m pretty sure that there are other players that watched that game and it just goes to show – don’t stop, just keep going.”
It helps, of course, to have Tom Brady.
The Patriots had a successful comeback four games earlier when they handed the New Orleans Saints one of their two losses. Brady led a 70-yard drive in just 1:08 to throw the winning touchdown with 5 seconds left in a 30-27 win.
And last December, the Patriots trailed the San Francisco 49ers 31-3 midway through the third quarter, then scored four touchdowns in the next 15 minutes to tie it before losing 41-34.
“One thing we’ve shown is that, mentally, we have some toughness. We’ve been in some bad situations,” Belichick said. “We’ve been able to hang in there even when it hasn’t always looked great. But, really, I would say that the season for us is kind of starting now.
“The teams that play well in November, December and January,” he said, “those are the teams that are standing in the end.”
Starting in 2010, the Patriots are 25-4 in those months during the regular season. They have a good chance to make that 30-4 with games remaining against Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Buffalo – all with losing records.
But if those games are close, count on the Patriots to fight until the final play. That’s when their last two games were decided.
“These games, they come down to the end almost every week now,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “You never know what’s going to happen, so it’s that whole bend but don’t break mentality of keep fighting, keep after your opponent to pull these wins out. It’s a great way to win.”
Even if some unorthodox decisions are made.
The Patriots won the overtime coin toss and decided to kick off and force the Broncos to go into the wind – even if it meant giving Manning and his potent offense the ball.
“The whole situation was a little bit confusing,” Belichick said, “because when I told the captains that, there was a little bit of a question of, ‘Are you talking about deferring?’ I was like, ‘No, we’re not deferring. We’re taking the wind, period.’”
Denver reached the New England 37-yard line on its second overtime series, but punted rather than try a long field goal into the wind.
The Patriots then punted from their 43. The ball bounced and hit Tony Carter of the Broncos. Nate Ebner pounced on it for New England at the Denver 13 and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning 31-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime.
“Luckily,” Gostkowski said, “we had the wind behind our back on that last kick.”
They shouldn’t need any extra help next Sunday when they visit the Texans, losers of nine in a row after winning their first two.
“You have to ride the momentum here of a great victory that we had last night and just continue to finish through here,” Ninkovich said. “We’re going to prepare like we always do and be ready to play the Texans tough.”