SEVEN days after his offense scored just six points at Cincinnati, in a loss that saw the end of his 52-game touchdown streak, and saw him complete fewer than half his passes for the second time this season, Tom Brady's place among football's elite quarterbacks was probably in more doubt than it's been in a decade when Sunday's game between the Patriots and Saints reached regulation's two-minute warning.
After a strong first half the New England offense had sputtered since halftime, allowing New Orleans to overtake them for the lead with 3:29 to play, and the Saints were ahead by four points when Brady made a bad throw after taking an ill-advised risk and had his long throw intercepted. Patriots fans are not accustomed to seeing poor decisions, let alone seeing them compounded by a dismal pass, and with the team staring at a second straight defeat both its quarterback and its predicament were becoming almost unrecognizable.
But then came the comeback. By Brady. And, maybe, for Brady.
Taking possession with 73 seconds to go, and needing to cover 70 yards without the benefit of a timeout, Brady gave the Patriots the signature moment of their season — and of recent memory — by marching down the field with a sequence of precise throws before lobbing a ball that rookie Kenbrell Thompkins hauled in over his defender, landing in the end zone with five seconds on the clock and giving the Patriots a stunning, 30-27 victory over the previously unbeaten Saints.
"Sorry if you had to rewrite some of those stories there at the end," a joyous Bill Belichick told reporters in opening his postgame press conference. "What a football game that was. I feel like it took about five years off my life."
Had the media begun telling the story of a Patriots loss, they weren't alone. Many among the sellout crowd at Gillette Stadium had headed for the exits by the time Brady and Thompkins pulled off their improbable comeback — but, really, it was hard to blame them.
After falling behind, 24-23, on a pass from Drew Brees to Kenny Stills with less than three and a half minutes to play, the Patriots dropped two Brady passes on the next possession, the second turning the ball over on downs when Aaron Dobson couldn't hang on to the pass thrown his way when Belichick had his offense attempt to convert a fourth-and-6 from their own 24.
A lot of folks left then. More exited after the Saints took advantage of the field position to tack on a field goal. Then even more departed when Brady's long pass toward Julian Edelman was picked off by a backpedaling defensive back.
At that point there was just 2:16 on the clock, so the odds of a New England win were long based on the score and time situation alone. But those weren't the only circumstances working against the Pats.
They began the day without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed his sixth straight game, and defensive stalwart Vince Wilfork, who's out for the year after an Achilles injury. Star cornerback Aqib Talib, who had dominated in coverage of all-world tight end Jimmy Graham, was out of the game because of a hip injury he'd incurred earlier.
Three-down linebacker Jerod Mayo had gone down and was done for the day, too. Meanwhile, on the other side, both starting guard Dan Connolly and go-to receiver Danny Amendola had been knocked out of the game after sustaining head injuries.
So, when the defense needed a three-and-out to give the Pats a chance, they had rookies Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Chris Jones on the field. And when the offense needed to march the length of the field, they were forced to turn to Austin Collie, the free-agent they plucked off the street less than two weeks ago.
But those makeshift units made up of whoever wasn't stuck in the MASH unit somehow got it done. The defense got the stop it needed, getting the ball to Brady with 1:13 on the clock. Then the quarterback got the ball to Collie twice among the four completions that moved the Pats all the way to the Saints' 17.
Edelman and Dobson made key plays, too, but when the game on the line it was Thompkins whose number was called. The Pats set themselves up to take two shots at the end zone if they executed properly — but they only needed one, Brady putting the ball in a perfect spot and the undrafted receiver skying to bring it in.
"It was a great effort today. We competed today right to the end."
They competed from the start, the Patriots sending an unmistakable message – maybe to themselves, maybe to the Saints – on their first offensive series. Seven days after scoring only six points in a loss to the Bengals, the speculation was that New England would confront New Orleans by trying to slow the game down, control the clock, and run the ball. Instead, they opened by going no-huddle and called passing plays on eight of their first snaps.
Ultimately a promising drive stalled out in the red zone, so the Patriots settled for a 35-yard field goal, though the aggressiveness of that sequence nevertheless served its purpose. It said that although the Saints were undefeated, although the Saints have a quarterback who's headed to the hall of fame, although the Patriots are still a young and in-progress offense, New England wasn't going to play fearfully. They were going to attack.
That idea was reinforced a few minutes later, when on the punt resulting from the Saints' first series the Patriots attempted to run a trick play on the return, on which Julian Edelman was supposed to throw back across the field for a lateral to Talib. It didn't work — Edelman was hit as he threw, and Talib had to scramble to cover the free ball – but, still, the strategy suggested that the Pats' players and coaches had enough confidence to not just sit back and try to stay close.
They maintained that late — even through the doubts that crept in a lot of places beyond their sideline – and ultimately came away with their record at 5-1. And with no questions about their quarterback's place in the game.
"He," Belichick said of Brady, "is obviously one of the best players in the league."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.