FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the end, the Denver Broncos had some of their own medicine shoved down their throats Sunday night.
Yes, a team that launched itself on an 11-game win streak in 2012 after erasing a 24-point lead in San Diego just over a year ago, got to see how the other half lives at Gillette Stadium. After a half of football in which the Broncos' defense was a swirling, playmaking, turnover-forcing machine, all involved were forced to come in from the cold in the early morning hours after letting one get away in overtime, 34-31 to the New England Patriots.
"We just didn’t get enough stops," cornerback Chris Harris said. "We didn’t get those stops we usually get. We are usually good about forcing teams to kick field goals, even if they get a short field or whatever, but we kept giving Tom Brady touchdowns."
It was the first time any team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning lost a lead of more than 22 points to lose a game. It was the biggest comeback in Patriots history. It was an improbable flip-flop after a short trip to the locker room for halftime.
Cornerback Tony Carter, who was the player lined up across from Baltimore's Jacoby Jones on the game-tying play last January, the play that will always raise the hackles of the Broncos faithful, was the player in the wrong place at the worst of times in the closing minutes of overtime Sunday night.
A New England punt with 3 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the extra period, after the Broncos' defense got the kind of stop that had eluded them for much of the third and fourth quarters, bounced off Carter’s leg and was recovered by the Patriots on the Broncos’ 13-yard line. Three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal.
Wes Welker, back to field the punt, had tried to wave everyone off just before the ball hit the ground, yelling “Peter, Peter’’ -- the Broncos' code word to stay away.
"I was just kind of blocking my guy, and at the last second I heard the call," Carter said. "I was trying to get out of the way and felt [the ball] hit my leg. It was just one of those deals, I was hoping it wasn’t the ball. That’s all, I was just hoping it wasn’t the ball."
And while it was Carter’s play that turned out to be the exclamation point on an OMG night for the Broncos, the heartbreak can be traced to some ill-timed turnovers by an offense that surrendered one too many short fields to Brady, but most of all to a defense that lost its mojo once the second quarter ended.
On the Patriots' first three possessions of the game, the Broncos’ Von Miller returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown; Miller sacked Brady, forcing a fumble that led to a second Broncos touchdown; and Duke Ihenacho forced a fumble that led to a Matt Prater field goal.
In 12 minutes of game time the Broncos had scored 17 points and the defense had three takeaways. For 12 minutes they were the defense that made the Broncos far more than just another pretty face that could only throw the ball and win games on sun-splashed days. They were the turnover-forcing, Miller-time defense that could rattle even a quarterback headed to Canton.
And then they were not. Then Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had one catch in the first half and six after halftime, including a touchdown. Then Brady had time to throw. After being sacked three times in the first half, the Broncos didn’t get him again for the remainder of the game.
With the Broncos working plenty of one-on-one coverages, Brady made a concerted effort to get the ball out more quickly after halftime. He targeted Gronkowski far more often, and the Patriots tried to create more traffic in their routes to shake free from the Broncos' defenders. So when Miller and the rest of the pass rush didn’t get there, the completions followed.
"[We] played a lot of tight coverage, did a couple things with pick routes, wheel routes, and they started to take advantage of some of that," Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. "But nothing we didn’t see in the first half, nothing we didn’t handle better in the first half."
"We didn’t do enough," Harris said. "We feel like we let one slip away for sure."
So, for all the Broncos have done this season -- they are still the highest-scoring team in the league, with 123 points more than any other team -- they still have an enormous question mark as to whether they have the defense to win a postseason slugfest in an environment where water might freeze and things could get tight. About whether they could dig in and take down one of the game’s elite quarterbacks or a game-tested coaching staff on the opposing sideline.
Because they didn’t have it Sunday night. The past two times the Broncos have faced the Patriots right off Route 1, New England has churned out 444 and 440 yards of offense to go with 31 and 34 points. There is also the matter of the Ravens putting up 479 yards and 38 points in last January’s playoff game.
The Broncos showed they could run the ball, muscling up on offense when the situation called for it -- for 280 yards, with 224 by Knowshon Moreno -- even as Manning threw for just 150 yards, his lowest total since the 2009 regular-season finale.
"We’ll deal with this and learn what we can out of it," Del Rio said, "... learn the lessons that are there to be learned."
It was a tale of two halves for the Broncos on Sunday, but how the season's final chapters unfold, well, that just may be up to the defense. That same defense that simply has to find whatever it left behind on this frozen November night.