FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The players on the field at Gillette Stadium felt as if they were characters in a television commercial. You know the one. The scene at the beginning is a sports bar and everyone is drinking a lot of beer and eating a lot of chicken and having a great old time watching the football game on the mega-screens, but suddenly time is running out and disappointment starts to intrude.
"I wish this game would never end," the young guy with perfect teeth says, as he sits next to his young girlfriend with perfect teeth.
"Let's see what I can do," the bartender says.
Or something like that.
He pushes a button and weirdness ensues. Something that nobody had seen very often in a football game suddenly occurs. The ball bounces in unforeseen ways. The course of the game is switched in a moment! Flipped! The couple with the perfect teeth is unbelievably happy, the people in the bar are even happier, but the players on the field are left to stare at each other and wonder what the heck exactly happened.
"Somebody pushed pushed the Buffalo Wild Wings button!" New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty said to describe that feeling after his team's 34-31 come-from-behind overtime victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football.
"The Wild Wings button," cornerback Aqib Talib agreed, delivering a proper fist bump.
How else to explain the strangeness that took place in this one? Stumbles were followed by bumbles as the Patriots fell behind, 24-0, at halftime. They couldn't do anything right.
Whoops! The second half came and they couldn't do anything wrong. The Broncos now fumbled and stumbled and at the end of 60 minutes of football, the score was tied, 31-31.
Whoops! The Patriots squandered chances in overtime, had to kick the ball to the Broncos and Peyton Manning with three minutes left, not a pleasant prospect. Whoops!
The ball touched a Bronco, rolled free, was covered by a former rugby player to put the Pats on the Denver 13 yard line.
Whoops! Stephen Gostkowski kicked the easy field goal and the Pats had biggest comeback victory, 24 points, in their franchise history and an 8-3 record that put them into prime playoff position.
"You spot a team like Denver 24 points -- we just took it one play at a time, kept fighting all the way through," coach Bill Belichick said. "We say, 'Play 60 minutes.' It took a lot more than that tonight."
Billed everywhere as the grand 14th career quarterback confrontation between Manning and the Pats' Tom Brady, klieg lights and star power, Wahlberg vs. Cruise, Springsteen vs. Sinatra, Hilfiger vs. Versace, the bit players took charge of this production. Negative trumped positive. The Patriots fumbled six times in the first half and lost three of them. The Broncos fumbled four times after halftime and lost two of them.
Never was there a good give-and-take between the two stars of the show. Someone would drop a sword or knock over a potted plant just as a featured solo would begin. Someone would drop a football.
"It was cold out there," a reporter suggested to Patriots running back Stevan Ridley, the first fumbler, whose mistake started the night and handed the Broncos their first touchdown. "Players were saying the ball was like a rock."
"It was like a rock," Ridley sadly agreed. (He was benched after the play, his third fumble in three weeks, never returned.) "But it was like a rock for Denver, too, No excuses."
The cold, 22 degrees with a 22 mph wind out of the northwest creating a six-degree wind-chill factor, sent a good portion of the crowd of 68,756 home at halftime. The Patriots mostly wished they also could have left. They huddled in embarrassment in their locker room. Whoops. How could they be behind, 24-0?
"That was a pretty brutal first half, maybe the worst I've ever been a part of," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "I'm not sure about that, but it was bad. But that's what halftime is for, to make adjustments and go out there and play the second half."
The message from coach Belichick was … "he just, uh, reminded us of the urgency of the situation," running back Shane Vereen said. The suggestion of what to do next was not anything new. The standard preferred Patriots operating procedure is to run a solid play, hope that it does well, then follow it with another solid play. And another and another.
"We've gone out and practiced a bunch on opening the third quarter up," wide receiver Julian Edelman said. "We've kind of struggled with that the last few games, a couple games back. Coach has created the situation where we simulate coming off of halftime and doing the third quarter stuff. I think it's really working, You looked at everyone in the huddle and everyone was all business because we knew just turned the ball over too many times in the first half."
Whoops. The game flipped as quickly as that. Touchdown off the opening drive of the second half. Touchdown off a Denver fumble. Touchdown off a punt. Touchdown off an interception of Manning. The Patriots had the lead, 28-24, before two minutes had been played in the fourth quarter. Four straight touchdowns. Edelman scored two of them. Gronkowski scored one. Reserve running back Brandon Bolden -- sorry, Mr. Ridley -- scored one.
"You've got to put a lot of stuff aside," quarterback Brady, who finished the night with 34-for-50 passing, 344 yards and three touchdowns. "You've got to forget what happened in in the first half because it was a terrible half of football. I don't even know what you coach at that point, you know?"
The bizarre overtime finish -- after the Broncos tied the score on a solid 80-yard drive by Manning with 3:06 remaining in regulation -- fit the rest of the night. One more whoops. The Pats looked like their best hope would be a tie when they punted the ball away. Manning would have time to drive down the field and set up a field goal attempt at the end. The Patriots would have to stop that. That was the prospect as the ball went through the air.
Whoops. That was when former Pat Wes Welker ---who was working his own fine subplot to the Manning-Brady spectacular, Scorned Suitor Returns -- signaled for a fair catch. He also shouted the word 'Peter,' which meant he was going to let the ball drop to the ground instead of catch it and his teammates should move away. Broncos special teamer Gary Carter heard the call, but at the same time was being pushed just a little bit, not a lot, by Patriots special teamer Marquise Cole in the direction of where the ball would land. Ball landed. Ball bounced. Ball went off Carter's thigh. The Pats' former rugby player, Nate Ebner, knew what he was supposed to do. He dove and landed on that sucker.
"Right place at the right time," he said. "I was just doing my job."
Cole, who did the pushing, just a little bit, said he thought pushing was legal in that situation. He said that part of punt-covering procedure, to push just a little bit when the receiver yells 'Peter.' Sometimes something good can come of that. Hey, something good came of that tonight.
"Somebody pushed the Wild Wings button!" Cole said.
"Hey, don't go using my line," McCourty said from the next locker. "I thought that up."