It was swept a little bit under the rug, but Dane Fletcher may just have been the key player for the Patriots Sunday night in New England's epic comeback victory over the Broncos.
How exactly did a former undrafted special teamer and backup linebacker make the difference in a game that highlighted two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who might just be two of the best passers to ever play the game?
Let's set the stage.
The Patriots had a turnover-filled first half that saw New England fumble on its first three possessions of the day, leading to 17 Denver points off those turnovers including Von Miller's 60-yard touchdown return that got the night's scoring going.
New England didn't have a drive last longer than six plays in the first half, even after the three turnovers, and found itself down 24-0 at halftime. That's the largest deficit a Bill Belichick-coached team has ever faced at the break in his 19 seasons as the sideline boss.
Coming out of the locker room after halftime, Brady and the offense showed some life. Throwing on seven of the eight plays on an 80-yard drive, and despite working into the wind, Brady got his offense on the scoreboard with a 5-yard touchdown to Julian Edelman to make the score 24-7 just 3:39 into the third quarter.
With the wind at his back Peyton Manning and the Broncos looked like they might be ready to match that score and make sure that New England didn't get any swing of momentum or warm life on this cold night. Working out of the shotgun, Manning handed off five straight times totaling 29 yards, with all five runs going for 4 yards or longer.
Denver moved from its own 19 to the just inside midfield at the 48. That's when Manning threw his first pass of the second-half, a and ill conceived conservative screen throw, to Montee Ball.
And that's when Fletcher made the play that may have saved the night for New England, or at the very least ignited the quick comeback that would see the Patriots cut to within 24-21 before the third quarter even ended.
Ball caught the Manning throw on the right side at the 41, 7 yards behind the line, and looked to turn upfield. Fletcher sniffed the play out and came up to meet the rookie second-round running back at about the 43. Ball had no blockers and Fletcher put his helmet/shoulder right on the ball that was in Ball's outside hand. It wasn't a huge hit on the rookie, who's admittedly dealt with fumble issues this season, but the heady play by the linebacker was enough to get the ball on the turf. Rob Ninkovich did a nice job grabbing Ball to keep him from trying to recover the loose ball, and when the pile was pulled apart a few seconds later Brandon Spikes and the Patriots came away with the football.
Six plays, 32 yards and 2:39 after that Brandon Bolden punched in a 1-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 10 points with plenty of time still to play in the third quarter.
Maybe the Patriots could have continued to come back without the turnover. But there also seemed to be at least a decent chance that the Broncos, who had marched 80 yards to a touchdown on their second to last drive of the second quarter, would continue to move the ball and extend their lead to 31-7 to match the Patriots opening score of the half. That may have been a hole that New England simply couldn't dig out of.
But thanks to Fletcher's hit, Ninkovich's effort and Spikes fighting for the ball Brady was back to -work. The momentum in a turnover-filled affair switched sides, the cold Gillette crowd got into it and eventually it was more than Manning, Wes Welker and the Broncos could deal with.
All that got going when Fletcher made a nice read, put his helmet on the ball and made things happen.
In a game where Brady outdueled Manning yet again, Julian Edelman found the end zone twice and Stephen Gostkowski sent everyone home happy with a game-winning, tie-avoiding field goal, Fletcher's major impact might get overlooked.
But those type of plays will never get overlooked here, where Take Two-sday makes sure that there is always enough praise to go around. And this week Fletcher is the focal point of that otherwise forgotten pat on the back!