New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after scoring a one yard touchdown during the second half of the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- The final error in a game filled with mistakes helped the New England Patriots to a stunning comeback win.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 31-yard field goal in overtime after a misplayed punt return by Denver, lifting the Patriots to a 34-31 victory over the Broncos on Sunday night.
"We had some plays in the first half that didn't go our way so it was nice to get a good bounce and we needed it," said Tom Brady, who helped the Patriots put together a terrific comeback in the second half.
Denver's Tony Carter ran into Ryan Allen's punt after it landed and Nate Ebner recovered for New England at the Broncos 13-yard line. After Brady ran twice to line up the kick, Gostkowski connected for his 21st successful field goal attempt.
The Patriots lost fumbles on their first three possessions, but Brady threw for three touchdowns to lead the Patriots (8-3) from a 24-0 halftime deficit to a 31-24 lead as New England scored on its first five possessions of the second half. Then Peyton Manning threw an 11-yard scoring pass to Demaryius Thomas for the Broncos (9-2), tying it at 31.
"You can't move the ball when you're losing it," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "You've got to hang onto it."
But Carter's gaffe was the third lost fumble for the Broncos in the second half.
"It was really a tale of two halves," Denver interim coach Jack Del Rio said. "We just had a fluke play at the end."
The early turnovers helped Denver to a big halftime advantage, but the Patriots took the lead when Brady hit Julian Edelman for a TD early in the fourth. Gostkowski's 31-yard field goal made it 31-24 midway through the fourth.
"We calmed down. We played each play one play at time," Edelman said of the difference in the second part of the game. "We didn't turn the ball over in the second half."
But Manning, who had thrown for only 73 yards in the first 3 1/2 quarters, led the Broncos on an 80-yard drive. Twice the Broncos were rescued by penalties: First when a defensive holding penalty negated an interception, and again when a pass interference on third-and-7 from the Patriots 17 gave Denver a first down.
On the next play, Manning lobbed one to Thomas in the left corner of the end zone to tie it.
Brady led the Patriots to three straight touchdowns in the third quarter to cut Denver's lead to 24-21 heading into the fourth. He was 21 for 26 for 228 yards and three TDs in the second half of the much-heralded matchup with Manning.
Brady led New England 80 yards for a touchdown to open the second half, thanks to a 33-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski and a 5-yard scoring pass to Edelman. Montee Ball coughed it up on Denver's next possession, and six plays later Brandon Bolden ran it in from the 1 to make it a 10-point game.
A 6-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski with 19 seconds left in the third quarter cut the Broncos' lead to 24-21.
Von Miller returned a fumble 60 yards for a touchdown and then strip-sacked Brady to force another turnover in the first quarter, setting up Knowshon Moreno's 2-yard TD run. Moreno finished with a career-high 224 yards on 37 carries.
When New England got the ball back, it held onto it for just two plays before LeGarrette Blount had the ball knocked loose by safety Duke Ihenacho. Linebacker Danny Trevathan fell on it and was ruled down by contact, negating a return that would have had the Broncos at the Patriots 11.
Instead, Denver settled for Matt Prater's 27-yard field goal that made it 17-0. The Broncos added another touchdown when Manning hit Jacob Tamme from 10 yards out for the only score of the second quarter.
On a night with a kickoff temperature of 20 degrees and a wind chill of 6, Manning completed 11 of 17 passes for 73 yards in the first three quarters while Moreno ran 25 times for 139 yards.
New England had lost five fumbles all season coming into the game and was sixth in the NFL in net turnovers. But Stevan Ridley, who coughed it up on the opening drive, has fumbled in three consecutive games, losing two.
Denver had a turnover of its own after forcing New England to punt right before the half. Trindon Holliday let the ball bounce off his leg, giving the Patriots the ball at the Broncos 42 with 5 seconds left.
Brady's Hail Mary was far short of the end zone and incomplete.
The temperature made it difficult on the players on each side and also could have been the reason that first the play clocks and then the game clocks went out, forcing the referees to keep the official time on the field. The clocks came back early in the second quarter.
Brady and Manning have six regular-season MVP awards between them and three more in the Super Bowl, where they've combined to win four NFL championships. It's the 14th time they've met, with Brady holding a 9-4 edge.
This time, though, Manning had former Patriots receiver Wes Welker on his side. Brady's longtime favorite target went to Denver as a free agent and he entered the game as the Broncos' leading receiver with 61 catches.
Welker was a non-factor with four catches for 31 yards.
Both teams had players knocked out of the game: Patriots offensive lineman Marcus Cannon had an ankle injury and Denver receiver Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured his shoulder.