FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Seriously? This is what the best team in the NFL looks like?
Time to recalibrate those power rankings. The Denver Broncos, the trendy team with the most prolific touchdown thrower in history, the defense that had allegedly coalesced behind a healthy Von Miller, newcomer DeMarcus Ware and former Patriot Aqib Talib, and a corps of receivers that on any other day would leave Tom Brady green with envy, showed up at the house of horrors known as Gillette Stadium and were thoroughly slashed in just about every possible category, losing 43-21.
It was the New England Patriots' defense that was superb, holding the high-octane Broncos to seven first-half points. It was New England's special teams that produced the game-changing play with Julian Edelman's 84-yard punt return, and it was the home-team quarterback who generated the kind of glitzy numbers (four touchdown passes) that are usually associated with his visiting counterpart.
It was all too familiar to Peyton Manning, whose struggles in the harsh New England climate are well documented.
You need look no further than last season when, in gusting winds and temperatures that hovered about 22 degrees, Manning and the Broncos pinned a 24-0 halftime deficit on Brady and the boys in Foxborough, only to collapse in a big orange heap in the final two quarters and lose in overtime.
In that game, Manning averaged just 4.0 yards per attempt and posted a QBR of 27. (For those of you scoring at home, Brady averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, threw two touchdowns and submitted a 95 QBR in the same conditions.)
Manning is now 2-8 when making the dreaded trek to Foxborough. He spent many miserable seasons in these parts as the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback, but usually made up for it in his home sweet dome. The Broncos and Patriots are following a similar pattern. Neither team can win in the other's stadium.
Naturally the Broncos 'quarterback was queried on his lack of success in this stadium through the years.
"I guess I'm not smart enough to draw that many connections," Manning said. "I take them one year at a time. There are different players and we didn't do the things on offense we talked about doing.
"That starts with me. I've got to play better. Plain and simple. When the quarterback stinks, usually you're not going to win too many games."
Gillette was blanketed with a thin film of snow earlier in the day, but by game time the sun was out and the snow was gone. Even so, the temperature hovered at 36 degrees and the omnipresent signature wind from the north tunnel was whipping across the field.
"Our stadium has a pretty consistent wind to it," Brady noted. He went on to describe his team's habit of practicing outside on frigid afternoons rather than retreat inside the practice bubble. The idea, he explained, is to "have a little mental toughness and put the elements out of your head."
Asked why he thought it was so difficult to play at Gillette, safety T.J. Ward dismissed the crowd as "not all that loud," then acknowledged, "maybe [the wind] aspect. I'm not really a wind person."
Neither is Manning. Although he threw for 438 yards, the Patriots were in their trademark "bend but don't break" defense, limiting the crossing routes that Peyton favors by mixing man and zone coverage. Manning threw for two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions.
Brady accounted for a precise 333 yards and continued to make the bashers who pontificated that he was washed up look both foolish and short-sighted.
Brady was poised, aggressive and made excellent decisions under pressure. Since the horrendous loss to Kansas City five weeks ago, Brady has thrown 18 touchdowns and only one interception. That pick came against the Broncos, and it was a ball that bounced off Danny Amendola's outstretched hands. Brady's receivers dropped a number of balls (including one by Brandon LaFell in the end zone), but the cushion he established was so significant it didn't matter.
"I think we've figured out some of the things we're pretty good at," Brady said wryly.
"Complementary football," safety Devin McCourty said. "We talk about it all the time, and it feels great as a defense to hold up our end."
With the game clock dwindling down, the appreciative Foxborough faithful began an earnest chant aimed at Manning: "Bra-dy's better! Bra-dy's better!"
Aside from the satisfaction of beating an elite team, the Patriots know this win could have significant playoff ramifications.
Had the Patriots lost, the notion of securing the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC would have been a long shot, with a head-to-head defeat against Denver. In the AFC East, second-place Miami, which throttled the Patriots in Week 1, won big against San Diego on Sunday (New England's road date with the Chargers on Dec. 7 suddenly feels a bit less daunting, no?), but the Fins are 5-3, with the Patriots waltzing into their bye week with a 7-2 mark.
Players in both locker rooms acknowledged they likely will see each other again in the postseason. Their playoff meeting took place in Denver last year, and the Patriots were unceremoniously eliminated in a game in which Manning was electric (400 yards, 2 TDs and 0 picks) and Brady was decidedly mortal.
So who is the best team in the NFL? It's premature to anoint the Patriots with that lofty title. They will enjoy a week off, then play the Colts in Indianapolis, host the 6-2 Detroit Lions, and embark on back-to-back road trips to Green Bay and San Diego.
We will know a lot more about this team after that grueling four-week swing. In the meantime, Arizona, Green Bay and Philadelphia will make their case as the No. 1 NFL threat, while the Niners and Seahawks will caution against writing them off too quickly.
As for the AFC, at least one Broncos player says what transpired at Gillette Stadium on Sunday hasn't changed a thing.
"We're still the best team," Ward declared. "We might see these guys again [in the playoffs]. Good. We'll be ready."