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FOXBORO (CBS) — Maybe by now we should know better than to declare the Tom Brady-led Patriots to be dead in any game that still has time left on the clock. Yet there were at least a couple of moments in the fourth quarter on Sunday when the clock seemed to have struck midnight on Brady and the Pats, and even the most optimistic of optimistic followers had to have lost hope in a victory.
With the Gillette Stadium stands only half-filled (or half-empty, again depending on your outlook), the Patriots got the ball, trailing by four points, needing to drive 70 yards in 1:13 with no timeouts. Brady and the offense had gained a total of just 17 yards in the entire fourth quarter to that point, and the odds of the quarterback leading the team to victory couldn’t have been very high.
Yet Brady went to work, calmly picking apart the New Orleans defense. A 23-yard strike over the middle to Julian Edelman, a casual 15-yard pickup on an in-cut run by Austin Collie in his first game as a Patriot, and a fake spike-turned-into-a-quick screen to Aaron Dobson for a gain of six got the Patriots to the New Orleans 26-yard line with the clock stopped at 35 seconds.
The odds? Better, but a win was still unlikely.
But nothing with Brady is ever impossible, and after two incompletions to Edelman near the goal line, he converted a fourth-and-4 to Collie and killed the clock with a spike. On the next play, he perfectly placed a pass in the left corner of the end zone, and rookie Kenbrell Thompkins came down with the ball for the winning touchdown with just five ticks left on the clock.
It was an amazing comeback, one that stand out even in Brady’s crowded résumé, but no comeback ever happens on its own. It takes quite a bit for the opportunity to arise, so here’s a quick look at how that fourth-quarter comeback was made possible.
The Situation: Saints facing third-and-7 at the New England 21-yard line, leading 24-23 with 2:33 left in the game
Credit to the Patriots’ coaching staff for having all three timeouts available late in the game. It saved the day for them.
The Saints took over deep in Patriots territory after Brady couldn’t convert a fourth-and-6 at his own 24. The Saints were stopped on their first two runs of the drive, with the Patriots calling timeouts after each play. The smart play for the Saints would have been to run the ball once more, force the Patriots to spend their final timeout if Pierre Thomas couldn’t pick up the first down, kick the field goal and try to keep the Patriots out of the end zone.
Instead, the Saints dialed up a passing play, and Alfonzo Dennard — who earlier just missed breaking up the go-ahead Saints touchdown pass — played outstanding defense on Marques Colston, breaking up the pass, stopping the clock and allowing the Patriots to preserve one timeout.
“That saved us a timeout,” Bill Belichick said of Dennard’s play. “That was a great play. He went up and made an excellent play on the ball. It’s the players making the plays. I think [coaches] managing the clock, you just do what you do. … It’s the players that are out there making the plays.”
The Saints kicked their field goal to go up by four, but allowing the Patriots to keep that final timeout proved the risk of attempting a pass to be very costly.
The situation: Saints facing third-and-7 from their own 33-yard line, leading 27-23, with 2:00 left in the game
Tom Brady nearly didn’t have a chance for the comeback, and it was all his fault. On the first offensive snap after the Patriots got the ball back following the New Orleans field goal, Brady threw a long bomb to Edelman up the right seam. Edelman was never looking for the ball and therefore could never adjust to the pass as it sailed toward him, and Keenan Lewis was there to make the interception and — it seemed — seal the victory for the Saints, who needed just one first down to be able to run out the clock.
But they weren’t able to do that, thanks to an outstanding third-down play by Chandler Jones.
The Saints had run twice to the right side, gaining two yards on the two plays before the two-minute warning. The Saints broke the huddle and hoped to catch the Patriots selling out to stop the run up the middle, but Jones had a responsibility to keep an eye on Brees, who tried to run left on a naked bootleg to pick up the first down and the win. Instead, he saw a whole lot of No. 95 in his face, and Jones took him down five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The play forced the Saints to punt, and the rest, well …
The situation: Patriots facing first-and-10 from the New Orleans 32-yard line, trailing 27-23, with 39 seconds left and the clock running
Brady rushed the offense to the line after Collie’s catch-and-run set the Patriots up deep in New Orleans territory. With the clock running, Brady appeared to be setting up for a spike to stop the clock. Instead, he took the snap from under center and gunned a bullet to Dobson, who was lined up wide right. Dobson made the catch and was immediately hit, but he stayed on his feet and kept his legs churning.
Inexplicably, Keenan Lewis essentially carried Dobson out of bounds, which stopped the clock and allowed the Patriots to settle things down. Had the Saints kept Dobson from going out of bounds, it would have cost the Patriots at least 10 seconds to get set and run a spike. Of course, you know that the Patriots scored with just 5 seconds left on the clock, so clearly every last second mattered in this one.
The situation: Patriots facing second-and-4 from the New Orleans 26-yard line, trailing 27-23, with 35 seconds left
Rob Gronkowski did not play on Sunday, and Danny Amendola left the game late in the third quarter after absorbing a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit by Rafael Bush. That resulted in Julian Edelman being Brady’s de facto No. 1 receiver in crunch time, so Brady threw to No. 11 on two consecutive plays. The first would have required Edelman to see through a defensive back’s body, stop on a dime and come back to the ball, as it skipped in short. The second looked like it could have and perhaps should have been a touchdown, but Edelman wasn’t able to hang on as he was hit and fell to the turf between the 1-yard line and the goal line.
The two failed attempts at going for broke set up a fourth-and-4, which the Patriots needed to convert to stay alive. With Edelman covered, Brady ended up throwing to Collie, who signed with the Patriots a little more than a week ago and was somewhat of a surprise to make the active roster on Sunday over rookie Josh Boyce.
But Brady had faith in Collie, who caught passes from Peyton Manning in Indianapolis earlier in his career, and the receiver rewarded him by picking up nine yards.
“He’s earned the confidence of everybody,” Brady said after the game. “We had a situation where we put him on the field and could see what he could do and see if he could help us win a game. And he did, so that was a great thing. That’s what we need and that’s what football teams are all about. You use all 53 guys on the roster to try to move the ball down the field and get into the end zone one way or the other.”
The situation: Patriots facing second-and-10 from the New Orleans 17-yard line, trailing 27-23, with 10 seconds left on the clock
With 10 ticks left in the game, Brady had two chances to take a shot at the end zone. He would only need one.
Brady took a shotgun snap and scanned the field before looking left to Thompkins, who had just two catches for 28 yards to that point. Thompkins was covered fairly tightly by Jabari Greer, but Brady had no time to waste and lofted one to the left corner of the end zone. The pass was picture-perfect, with the ball sneaking just out of the reach of Greer and into the hands of Thompkins, who had plenty of room in the end zone to fit both feet after coming down with the pass.
The comeback was complete, and those who didn’t leave early to beat the traffic were rewarded with the best finish to a football game they’ll ever see.
“That’s what he does,” Belichick said flatly of Brady’s game-winning drive, the 38th fourth-quarter comeback of the quarterback’s career. “That’s what he gets paid for. That’s why he’s so good. He does a good job of throwing the ball accurately and making good decisions, and he made several of them on that drive.”
Some of Brady’s own teammates were somewhat in awe of the performance after the win.
“It’s special to have 12 on your team, just to witness that, it’s just incredible,” Kyle Arrington said. “I was jumping for joy on the sideline when KT made a heck of catch, and Tom of course made a heck of a throw.”
“I’m still shocked watching Brady play,” Dennard added. “He’s amazing.”
On this night, not one person who remained inside Gillette Stadium for the final minutes of the game would try to argue against that point.