DENVER -- The New England Patriots overcame their injuries with a healthy quarterback and a coach who made one of the shrewdest calls of the NFL season.
The Denver Broncos, equally banged up, couldn't overcome their problems.
It came after coach Bill Belichick's call for a deliberate safety with his team, trailing 24-23, backed up on their 1 on fourth down with 2:49 left.
The safety made Denver's lead 26-23, but it gave New England punting room and Ken Walter's free kick put the Broncos back at their 15. The Broncos went three and out and New England had to drive just 58 yards after getting the ball back with 2:15 left after using two timeouts
"I think that was the best call of the game," Givens said. "Our coaches knew that we have a great field-goal kicker. The offense was moving the ball all game and either we were going to get three and go to overtime or score a touchdown."
Belichick, who took an intentional safety in a 28-19 win here in 2000, said he took the safety because he figured he would lose any chance at good field position if he punted from the end zone.
"We were hoping to get the ball back in decent field position and still have some time to at least try for a field goal to tie it," he said.
Brady, who completed 20-of-35 for 350 yards, drove New England down the field easily, hitting Kevin Faulk for 16 yards on the play before the TD. On the touchdown, Givens beat Deltha O'Neal, whose 57-yard touchdown return late in the third quarter gave the Broncos a lead they didn't surrender until the final minute.
Both teams entered the game with all sorts of injuries. Denver (5-4) was without two starting linebackers, its starting left tackle as well and Ed McCaffrey, the third wide receiver.
Danny Kanell, Denver's third-string quarterback, was making his second straight start because of injuries to Jake Plummer and Steve Beuerlein. And kicker Jason Elam pulled a groin muscle during the game, the Broncos' third straight loss.
The Patriots (7-2) had started 40 different players in their first seven games and added defensive tackle Richard Seymour, having a Pro Bowl season, to their injury list just before the game with a leg injury.
This loss created emotional damage as well as physical pain.
"It hurts right down here, in the pit of my stomach," said Kanell, who was 16-of-35 for 163 yards, playing it safe by throwing the ball away when receivers weren't open. "This one will be with me a long time."
For a long time, it looked like he would be celebrating.
New England was leading 20-17 and punted from its 30 with 3:40 left in the third quarter. The punt pinned the Broncos back to their 23, but snapper Lonie Paxton was called for holding.
On the re-punt, O'Neal took the ball on his 43 and darted left through Patriots' defenders, got some help from an official who got in the way of Walter, and went all the way to the end zone.
The Patriots cut it to 24-23 on Adam Vinatieri 's 28-yard field goal with 11:09 left.
Then came the safety after Brady threw three incomplete passes from the 1. Belichick then ordered Paxton to deliberately snap the ball over Walter's head. It hit the goal post and the rest went perfectly.
"There were a lot of things we didn't do very well tonight," Brady said. "But the thing about this team is that sometimes we're down but we're never out."
Denver led 17-13 at the half but New England survived two big mistakes.
The first was a fumbled snap by Brady recovered by Kenoy Kennedy on the Patriots' 28. Four plays later, Clinton Portis, who ran for 111 yards on 26 carries, raced 15 yards through a huge hole up the middle to make it 7-0.
Kennedy also had an interception on the next series, but Elam missed a 43-yard field goal attempt, pulling his right groin afterward. He made a 44-yarder in the second quarter, but left the game after that kick.
Brady's 65-yard pass to Deion Branch tied it at 7. Elam and Vinatieri later exchanged field goals, Vinatieri's coming from 40 yards out.
Kanell then engineered a 72-yard, 14-play that consumed half the second quarter and was capped by his 1-yard TD pass to Mike Anderson. But Bethel Johnson returned the kickoff 63 yards, setting up a 46-yarder by Vinatieri to end the half.
The Patriots took a 20-17 lead midway through the third quarter on Brady's 6-yard TD pass to Daniel Graham.
Then the fun really started.
But not for Denver.
"We had a chance to win the football game," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "Everyone's got injuries. It is part of the NFL. I thought we did some good things, but not enough."
- O'Neal's touchdown return was the first punt return for a score against New England in 167 games since Sept. 5, 1993.
- In addition to Elam's injury, the Broncos also lost linebacker Donnie Spragan with a sprained left foot. He was replacing the injured John Mobley.
- This was only the second win for New England in its past 14 games in Denver.
The Associated Press News Service
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