A 15-point fourth-quarter lead was nearly gone.
Powered by a 38-yard Cam Netwon scramble, the Patriots traveled 65 yards in just five plays and a minute, 43 seconds to cut Denver's lead to 18-9 with 8:33 to play in the game.
After a Drew Lock interception, the Patriots added a field goal with 3:27 to play to move within six points.
And when Lock threw another interception with 3:23 to play — the Broncos' first offensive snap of their ensuing series — New England had more than three minutes to cap a comeback.
On their second play from scrimmage, Newton threw a backward pass to Julian Edelman, who then found James White across the field on a trick play that went for 22 yards. On a fourth-and-1 a few plays later, Newton powered forward for a first down. On a double reverse pass, Julian Edelman found Newton for a 16-yard gain that moved the ball to Denver's 24-yard line. With less than 90 seconds to play, the Broncos appeared to be in trouble. They appeared destined for another last-minute loss, like the one against the Titans to begin the year or a slew of heart-breakers in 2019.
But then, Newton fired incomplete to Edelman. He was sacked on second down by Malik Reed for a 6-yard loss, and his third-down pass to James White set up a fourth-and-10.
At that moment, Head Coach Vic Fangio turned to a play that he had installed with his Broncos defense just days earlier.
He went to a play that he had never called in the more than 30 years he's spent in the NFL.
New England lined up with two backs in the backfield and three wide receivers. Denver was in a dime look with six defensive backs, and the Broncos had just one down lineman, with Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed perched as stand up rushers.
As Newton prepared to take the snap, safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson raced forward from their initial alignment 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. As they made their way within five yards of the line, Newton took the snap and faced seven rushers: Jackson, Simmons, Chubb, Reed, Shelby Harris, Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell.
Duke Dawson Jr., Michael Ojemudia, Bryce Callahan and De'Vante Bausby dropped into coverage, and Bausby was the nearest player to N'Keal Harry. Newton threw beyond Harry's reach on an out-breaking route, though, and the Broncos earned the win.
"I just think at times during the season you have to come up with something on a week-to-week basis — and that's one that I've been looking at," Fangio said of the seven-man blitz. "I just decided that this was the time to do it. This was the week to put it in plus it was the time for us to do it as our package evolves here. With Cam Newton — as you guys saw — I think he was their leading rusher and I don't think many of them were called runs, most of them were scrambles. We've got to add guys sometimes to contain a good quarterback who's a good runner and that's just where we're at right now, so I thought the timing was right for it."
Fangio hasn't been known of late for blitzing, but he said he used to be the "leading blitzkrieger in the NFL." With the personnel he had in San Francisco and Chicago during his last two stops, blitzing wasn't as necessary, so he dialed his usage back. On Sunday, though, he returned to his old ways.
"That's very Vic-esque," Simmons said of the blitz. "I remember the Browns game last year at home he called a safety blitz and we hadn't called it the whole game, but we had worked on it so much throughout the week. He's the type of guy that just has a great feel for the game in terms of play calling and he just felt it was the right time to call it. We obviously had never called it before and it's just a lot of trust in the players to go out there and execute it. Kareem and I were sent on the blitz, and it was just well executed around the board."
The Broncos installed the blitz the previous week in practice, and Ojemudia said he appreciates Fangio believing in the team's defense.
"Thanks to Vic for having the trust in us to cover our guys for that," Ojemudia said. "That definitely takes some guts and we appreciate that call."
The blitz was just the latest indication that Denver's defense has adopted an aggressive mentality that predicates itself on forcing turnovers and getting to the quarterback. The Broncos now have 10 sacks in their last two games and forced three turnovers against the Patriots.
And, for the second consecutive week, Denver's defense faced a must-hold scenario and responded in turn.
"It's all about momentum and riding that wave," Simmons said. "Even though it's been two weeks since we've played, we [came] out here in Foxborough in this tough environment— regardless of if there's fans or not — and [found] a way to win. Coming out here and finding a way to get turnovers and our offense moving the ball down the field, you just ride that type of momentum. I was just really proud of the way that we battled. I felt like we were very physical this game on both sides of the ball, running the football, and winning our one-on-one matchups."
With Fangio's blitz call, they won the game, as well.