Stephan Savoia/Associated Press
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The Denver Broncos’ opening drive ended when Demaryius Thomas fumbled away a 43-yard reception at the New England 10-yard line.
Their last one stopped when Willis McGahee coughed it up at the Patriots’ 11.
“You’ve got to do better than that,” said McGahee, who also dropped a pass on fourth and 1 in the fourth quarter. “I think that changed the game, and I take full credit for that.”
Peyton Manning threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, but he was also strip-sacked in the third quarter as the Patriots forced three fumbles to open a 24-point lead and win 31-21. Thomas caught nine passes for 188 yards, and McGahee had 51 yards rushing and 51 more receiving, but each also had a key turnover deep in New England territory.
“Any time you turn the ball over, it hurts you,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “You go on the road (Sunday), against a very good football team and particularly offensively in their tempo and their skill set, makes for tough slugging. I mean, our guys hung in there and fought back, but at the end of the day, it is still minus-two (in turnover differential). That usually relates in a point differential.”
In the 13th meeting between the star quarterbacks – and first since Manning joined the Broncos – Brady directed four scoring drives of at least 80 yards. He completed 23 of 31 passes for 223 yards and one touchdown and ran for another while opening a 31-7 lead in the third quarter.
“This is not a team you want to fall behind to,” said Manning, who was 31 of 44 while falling to 4-9 in his career against the Patriots. “We had a couple of chances in the first half to score some points. ... You have to be able to convert opportunities when they present themselves.”
Manning’s fumble led to Stevan Ridley’s 8-yard run that put the Patriots (3-2) ahead 31-7 with about five minutes left in the third quarter. Ridley led the Patriots with a career-high 151 yards rushing.
Manning then threw touchdown passes of 2 yards to Eric Decker and 5 yards to Brandon Stokley, but Denver (2-3) lost the ball on McGahee’s fumble with 3:42 remaining.
The Patriots set a franchise record with 35 first downs as they kept their offense rolling one week after gaining 580 yards, 247 on the ground, in a 52-28 rout of the Buffalo Bills. The Broncos sputtered after beating the Oakland Raiders 37-6.
Brady and Manning first faced each other in the third game of the 2001 season. The Patriots won 44-13 in Brady’s first career start.
There were plenty of close games in subsequent regular-season matchups with six of the previous seven decided by seven points or less. Sunday’s outcome was different, although Manning brought the Broncos back from a 24-point deficit in the second half.
His scoring pass to Stokley followed a fumble by Brady on a sack.
Ridley then lost a fumble on New England’s next possession, and Manning seemed poised to keep the comeback going. A 28-yard completion to Thomas put the ball at the Patriots’ 14, but two plays later, McGahee fumbled, and Jermaine Cunningham recovered at the New England 11.
The Patriots led 17-7 at halftime and 31-7 after three quarters. Brady and his runners kept slicing through the Denver defense with a balanced attack. They went ahead to stay, 14-7, midway through the second quarter on a 14-play drive (seven pass plays and seven runs) capped by Shane Vereen’s 1-yard run.
Ridley had the third 100-yard rushing game of his career, all this season. Wes Welker, the NFL’s leading receiver last year with 122 catches, had 13 for 104 yards.
The Broncos wasted an excellent opportunity on their first series. Manning hit Thomas with a 43-yard completion to the Patriots 10-yard line, but Sterling Moore stripped the ball and recovered the fumble. The Patriots went four-and-out on the ensuing possession, then scored on their next three possessions – 84 yards for Brady’s 8-yard pass to Welker, 80 yards for Vereen’s touchdown and 93 yards for Stephen Gostkowski’s 23-yard field goal.
Denver did tie the game 7-7 on Manning’s 1-yard pass to Joel Dreessen but didn’t reach the end zone again until Manning hit Decker to end a 90-yard march, cutting the lead to 31-14 with 1:08 left in the third.
The Patriots even got key plays from their backup running backs. Brandon Bolden had a 24-yard gain on the series leading to Gostkowski’s field goal. On that same drive, Danny Woodhead gained 25 yards on a pass from Brady on a third-and-14 play from the Broncos’ 11.
Woodhead kept another drive going in the third quarter with a 19-yard rush on third-and-17 at the Patriots 43. That series ended with Brady’s touchdown dive.