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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

This one knocked our socks off

DENVER -- They are the anti-Red Sox, these New England Patriots. Tom Brady is the anti-Pedro. And Bill Belichick is the anti-Grady.

New England sports fans who lost sleep during the baseball playoffs returned to their late-night ways last night, tuning in to "Monday Night Football" to watch the Patriots play at Denver. But this time, there was a reward for staying up late. It was the photographic negative of what happened to the Sox in the Bronx. It was unbelievable, even if you saw it with your own eyes.

In a game it appeared they had no chance to win, the Patriots last night beat the Broncos, 30-26, on the strength of genius moves by Belichick and another big-time performance from Brady (20 of 35, 350 yards). The winning TD came with 30 seconds left when Brady connected with David Givens on an 18-yard touchdown pass. The game ended just before 12:30 (EST) this morning.

All those bloodshot eyes and lost hours of work went for nothing when New England sports fanatics stayed up to watch the Sox. Not this time. Not last night. As they proved two years ago, the Patriots are not the Red Sox. They do not blow it in the finish. They can finish the job.

This time, it was the other guys who had the game in the bag. For Denver, this was as sure a thing as Pedro Martinez with a 4-0 lead, or Pedro with a three-run lead and five outs to go.

This time it was the other guys who choked. It was the other guys crying as they made their midnight confessions.

This time it was the Denver fans (72,852 of them) who sat with the stunned looks on their faces. The Bronco fans found out there is no such thing as a sure thing.

But how could they not have been supremely confident? After all, the locals led by 1 point and the Patriots faced fourth and 10 from their own 1-yard line with 2:51 left on the clock.

The Patriots were 99 yards from paydirt. They were out of downs and out of luck.

And what did Belichick do? He called for the intentional safety. As the Patriots lined up for a punt, Lonie Paxton deliberately snapped the ball out of the end zone. It ended up hitting the goalpost. Two points for Denver. The old intentional safety play. Pretty funny, right?

"That was a great call, that won us the game," said lineman Damien Woody. "We practice little things like that."

Given the option to placekick or punt, Belichick ordered a punt, and the Broncos failed to field it. The ball rattled deep into Denver territory, to the 15. You know the rest. The Patriot defense forced the Broncos to punt, New England took over on its own 42 with 2:15 left. Brady drove the team into the end zone with 30 seconds left on the clock. Six plays. Fifty-eight yards. One minute and 45 seconds. One miracle.

"I really don't know what to say," said Denver coach Mike Shanahan. "The bottom line is that in the end we didn't get it done and they did."

The victory destroyed some of the Soxlike ghosts that had tortured the Patriots in this city. New England had won only once here since 1968 and Brady was 0-2 against the Broncos. It was at this new stadium two years ago that young Brady threw the first interception of his career. The Broncos picked him off four times in a single half.

The Patriots were also battling a Monday night jinx. New England came into the game with a lifetime mark of 9-19 in the NFL showcase.

But instead of folding after committing some costly turnovers and a whopping 14 penalties for 86 yards, the Patriots dug down deep and pulled out one of the great comebacks in the history of New England and MNF. The win also gave the Patriots a 7-2 record, matching the best nine-game start in franchise history (1978 and '80).

It would have been easy to switch off your TV when the Patriots lined up to punt from the 1 in the final minutes. But those who stayed were rewarded with one fantastic finish.

Shades of 2001. On the road, in the toughest place to win, the Patriots snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It was the kind of game that brought back memories of the Super Bowl ride.

So this morning, nothing is impossible. The Patriots are not the Red Sox. They made it worthwhile to stay up past midnight.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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