New England Patriots Game night: Bridge of Sighs
Cold wind blows
The Gods look down in anger,
On this poor child
When Robin Trower penned the song Bridge of Sighs, it was an obvious reference to Ponte dei Sospiri, an enclosed bridge made of limestone that connected the interrogation rooms in Doge's Palace to a new prison that had been constructed adjacent to Rio di Palazzo canal in Venice, Italy.
The bridge, named by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the small iron bar windows before being taken down to their cells to await execution.
The Bridge that spans the entrance to Gillette Stadium bridge, a replica of the Longfellow Bridge that connects Boston and Cambridge, has long had the same effect on visiting football teams and their fans.
On Sunday night, the effect was in full force yet again, only this time the Patriots ripped the hearts out of their victims before sending them across the wind swept bridge in the cruelest of manners, scoring 31 unanswered points after falling behind Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos 24-0 at halftime and taking the game away from the Broncos in overtime.
Yes, the Patriots reached back into their souls and conjured the strength to forcibly extract the game away from the perceived juggernaut of the Broncos - and after the start they had to the game, it would take every ounce of strength they had to overcome their own foolishness.
The cold wind blew, as Trower wrote and sang, and it was coming directly from the entrance to Gillette Stadium - a wind so strong that it had to be from the Gods to test the resolve of two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game of football, and in the end, their anger landed on the team that has yet to prove their mettle.
A Broncos team that had the Patriots on the ropes but lacked the killer instinct to put them away led by a quarterback who was victimized not just by the howling winds, but also by a Patriots' defense that - just like Brady and the offense - never surrendered and, ultimately, kept New England in the game.
A defense that surrendered a whopping 280 rushing yards to the Broncos, but held the Broncos to "only" 24 points in the first half, yielding just one sustained drive after being handed a short field to defend over and again by the stumbling offense - forcing three punts and allowing just one touchdown on drives not the result of a turnover...
The sun don't shine,
The moon don't move the tides
to wash me clean
After forcing the Broncos to go four and out on their first possession, New England took over and promptly handed the ball right back to Denver.
Stevan Ridley coughed up the ball at the Denver 40, picked up by Von Miller and returned 60 yards for the first score of the game - and if that didn't cause enough of an audible sigh from the frozen Foxborough faithful, they got another chance to have their breath taken away 24 seconds later.
With Brady back to pass, Miller swooped past left tackle Nate Solder, blindsiding Brady - the ball hitting the Gillette Stadium turf and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton scooping it up - two plays later, Denver running back Knowshon Moreno ran the ball into the end zone and the Broncos had a 14-0 lead with just over six minutes gone in the game...
...And if the sighs weren't loud enough after that?
The game seemed lost for good when Duke Ihenacho knocked LeGarrette Blount out cold on the next Patriots' series, the ball dropping to the turf immediately and recovered by Danny Trevathan halfway through the 1st quarter, Denver taking over at midfield - Moreno and rookie Montee Ball running the ball down the collective throat of the Patriots' defense, only a sack of Manning by Chandler Jones preventing another Denver touchdown...
...but a field goal made the score 17-0.
When the Patriots got the ball back with three minutes left in the opening quarter, Ridley was still on the bench - as was Blount - Brandon Bolden, previously buried on the depth chart, taking over lead back duties - but a false start penalty and the second sack of Brady unhinged the drive, but it was a victory of sorts for New England as they actually were able to give the ball back to the Broncos on their own terms, this time a Ryan Allen punt.
Not even sure handed Julian Edelman could hold onto the football, as on the first Denver possession of the second quarter, the Patriots' forced the Broncos to punt, Edelman fielding the ball on the 10 yard line, dropping it, picking it up and running up to the 18 where he took a nasty shot and fumbled the ball.
Fortunately for the Patriots, rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan was in the right place and fell on the ball. Three plays later Shaun Phillips knocked the ball out of Brady's hand, but Brady picked it back up and completed a pass to Bolden.
The Patriots had to take solace in the fact that the ball was at least starting to bounce their way, even if the forceful wind dictated that coach Bill Belichick had his troops go for a 4th and 5 from the Broncos' 30 yard line, which ended up backfiring.
On the ensuing Broncos' possession, having so much success running against the Patriots' light run defense, they stayed on the ground despite having the wind at their backs, but when faced by a 3rd & 20 after an intentional grounding penalty, Manning went to the air again, a screen picking up 32 yards, and then Denver went right back to running the ball right down the Patriots' throats...
...a Jacob Tamme 10 yard touchdown reception on 3rd and five made the score 24-0 with just over six minutes left before half, and turned the shocked sighs to indignant boo's deservedly raining down upon the shell-shocked Patriots.
A curious set of play calls ended New England's last drive of the half, but Vonnie Holliday muffed the ensuing punt and the Patriots recovered just inside Denver territory - but just as the rest of the game had gone, the Patriots finally get a break on a turnover, but have only 5 seconds left and driving into the wind.
But that one play may have turned the tide of the game, as on the deep throw by Brady, Denver cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie appeared to hurt his shoulder diving for an interception, and was out for the rest of the game.
Why so unforgiving and why so cold
Been a long time crossing Bridge of Sighs
A different team came out of the locker room for the Patriots in the second half - Brady in the up-tempo, going 7 of 7 into the wind, the Patriots going 80 yards in 8 plays, a one-handed grab by Edelman on a fade in the right corner of the end zone - with the bridge in full view - and the Patriots were on the board, though the score was still 24-7...
...but then, the Broncos went back to the ground game and were moving the ball in chunks, and when Manning called another screen pass, it was sniffed out by Dane Fletcher who jarred the ball loose from Ball and the Patriots were in business at the Denver 32.
Six plays later Bolden ran the ball into the end zone from one yard out, the key play a Gronkowski catch and rumble to the one yard line, and suddenly the New England Patriots were back in the game at 24-14.
Another Broncos' possession started with a promising first down to the New England 38, but Jamie Collins put an end to that drive on a 3rd and five, bull rushing Manning on an inside stunt, running over Moreno and forcing Manning out of the pocket, the ball slipping from his hands, but he was able to recover and the Broncos punted with two minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
Brady came out firing, hitting Kenbrell Thompkins for a first down, then deep - into the wind - to an improvising Edelman for 43 yards and a 1st and goal at the Denver 7 yard line. A Brady throw away and a Vereen short run and the Patriots had a third and goal from the six.
A bullet to Gronkowski and the Patriots had suddenly scored 21 straight points - into the wind - toward that Bridge of Sighs.
The 4th quarter started with Denver running the ball, but again faltered when faced with throwing into the wind - with Jamie Collins in his face, Manning found his quick-read but rookie corner Logan Ryan cut in front of receiver Eric Decker and the Patriots were in business again at the Broncos' 30, now with the wind at Brady's back.
Brady found Gronkowski for 16 yards, then Edelman, who made a leaping dive into the end zone for the first Patriots' lead of the game.
A three and out featuring an Aqib Talib mugging of Denver's Demaryus Thomas led to another Denver punt, Edelman fielding the ball at his own 33 and returned it 20 yards on a cross field reverse to the Denver 47 yard line - the ensuing drive starting with a Vereen seven yard run, then a Gronkowski catch got the Patriots a first down at the 36...
...then a Vereen catch for a first down to the 24. A holding call on Matthew Mulligan set the Patriots back to the 34 for a 1st & 20, but a Danny Travathan penalty for a hand to the face on Gronkowski gave the Patriots an automatic first down - a Thompkins catch took the ball to the 15, but they could get no closer and were forced to settle for a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a 31-24 lead.
Denver got serious on their next drive, knowing that if they didn't create some offense that the game would slip away from them.
Manning came out clicking, lucking out on a holding call on Aqib Talib - lucked out because Talib had picked him off - then took his second life and drove the Broncos down the field - against the wind - aided by a Rob Ninkovich pass interference call, throwing a 10 yard fade to Thomas to tie the game with 3:06 to play and breaking the Patriots' string of 31 consecutive points scored.
Both teams had one more possession but couldn't make anything out of them, the Patriots going three and out, and excellent pass defense by Kyle Arrinton and Talib forced a Denver punt and the teams were headed to overtime.
New England won the coin flip for overtime and elected to take the wind on offense, but in doing so gave the ball to Manning and the Broncos first to start overtime - a curious decision be as the Broncos had moved the ball on the Patriots all game, and if they were to score a touchdown, the game would be over.
And the Broncos came out shoving the ball right up New England's gut, Moreno ripping off a couple of big runs to get the ball into Patriots' territory. But an offensive pass interference call on Decker put the Broncos in a third and 14 and Talib made a nice play on Thomas and the Patriots had the ball with a chance to prove Belichick a genius.
A pass to Gronkowski for 12, a Bolden run for 6 - then an obvious pass interference on Quentin Jammer went uncalled and Brady absolutely lost it, having to call a time out to gain his composure - then the worst play call of the night, a Brady long ball toward Edelman went sailing out of bounds and New England was forced to punt once again.
Some big running from Moreno got the ball to midfield for Denver, then Manning connects with Tamme to the New England 40, needing the 30 for field goal position, setting up the defensive play of the game for New England.
Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins had coverage on former Patriot Wes Welker, jammed him at the line, then knocked the ball away from him in the flat to force a Broncos punt - but Brady couldn't connect with Amendola nor Gronkowski on consecutive plays and the Patriots were forced to punt the ball back to Denver...
...the kick hitting the ground, bounced up and hit backup corner Tony Carter and the live ball was recovered by backup safety Nate Ebner for New England - and one 20 yard Gostkowski field goal and the Patriots had the improbable victory.
A dejected Del Rio told his tale of woe at the post game presser, Manning as well - but unlike the prisoners who were forced to cross the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the Broncos would pass underneath it to the bus that would take them to Logan Airport, their vessel for the long flight home awaiting...
...chances are very good that these two teams will meet again - and only in the AFC Championship game for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and with Denver falling to 9-2 and New England raising their record to 8-3, the only question remaining is at which cold and windy stadium will the game be played.
If at Gillette, the Bridge of Sighs awaits the Broncos again. So do those resilient and battle tested Patriots, who now, despite all of their injuries and bad breaks, look to be the class of the AFC once again.
Photo credits - David Silverman and Keith Nordstrom via New England Patriots
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images