There were plenty of close games in subsequent regular-season matchups with six of the previous seven decided by seven points or less. Sunday's outcome was different, although Manning brought the Broncos back from a 24-point deficit in the second half.
His scoring pass to Stokley followed a fumble by Brady on a sack.
Ridley then lost a fumble on New England's next possession and Manning seemed poised to keep the comeback going. A 28-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas put the ball at the Patriots' 14 but two plays later McGahee fumbled and Jermaine Cunningham recovered at the New England 11.
The Patriots led 17-7 at halftime and 31-7 after three quarters. Brady and his runners kept slicing through the Denver defense with a balanced attack. They went ahead to stay, 14-7, midway through the second quarter on a 14-play drive (seven pass plays and seven runs) capped by Shane Vereen's 1-yard run.
Ridley had the third 100-yard rushing game of his career, all this season. Wes Welker, the NFL's leading receiver last year with 122 catches, had 13 for 104 yards.
The Broncos wasted an excellent opportunity on their first series. Manning hit Thomas with a 43-yard completion to the Patriots 10-yard line, but Sterling Moore stripped the ball and recovered the fumble. The Patriots went four-and-out on the ensuing possession then the Patriots scored on their next three possessions — 84 yards to Brady's 8-yard pass to Welker, 80 yards to Vereen's touchdown and 93 yards to Stephen Gostkowski's 23-yard field goal.
Denver did tie the game 7-7 on Manning's 1-yard pass to Joel Dreessen but didn't reach the end zone again until Manning hit Decker to end a 90-yard march, cutting the lead to 31-14 with 1:08 left in the third.
The Patriot even got key plays from their backup running backs. Brandon Bolden had a 24-yard gain on the series leading to Gostkowski's field goal. On that same drive, Danny Woodhead gained 25 yards on a pass from Brady on a third-and-14 play from the Broncos' 11.
Woodhead kept another drive going in the third quarter with a 19-yard rush on third-and-17 at the Patriots 43. That series ended with Brady's touchdown dive.