FOXBORO (CBS) — That … I was not expecting that. You were not expecting that. How could you have been expecting that?
You should never count out Tom Brady and the Patriots … except when you totally should, like you should have on Sunday night.
But Brady pulled a rabbit out of his hat for the 38th time in his career, and this one was completely unique. He twice connected with Austin Collie, who signed with New England 10 days prior to Sunday’s game and hadn’t caught an NFL pass in over a year, and he hit undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins for the picture-perfect game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.
It would be inaccurate to say it was vintage Tom Brady, because Brady’s never done it quite like that.
But the comeback, for all its glory, was only part of Sunday’s game, so before it all gets forgotten to history, let’s run through the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ most improbable 30-27 victory over the Saints.
–First, the bad. Aqib Talib suffered a hip injury, left the game and did not return. Danny Amendola got knocked out in the third quarter with a hit to the head, and it looked bad. Jerod Mayo left the field in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury, and he left the stadium with his arm in a sling. And Dan Connolly didn’t make it through the first quarter with a head injury of his own.
That’s four starters going down, all of whom are fairly important to the team. You saw in the AFC Championship Game last year how the defense changes without Talib, and with Vince Wilfork already out for the year, the Patriots would hardly welcome an extended absence for Mayo. They’ve survived without Amendola before, but you hate to see a guy who fought as hard as he did to get himself back on the field get taken out with a shot to the head.
Obviously, this is the NFL, and injuries come with the territory, but Sunday’s game was a lot more costly than usual for the Patriots.
–Of all the things that took place on Sunday, Julian Edelman leaving Tom Brady hanging on a high five had to be the most unbelievable.
–Whenever a team wins a close game like this, the victorious team deserves loads of credit, but the losing team usually deserves even more blame. To wit, the Saints’ decision to pass on third-and-7 with 2:33 left in the fourth quarter was foolish, and it allowed the Patriots to preserve a timeout in addition to the two-minute warning. Oops!
And that last drive, for all of Brady’s greatness, still probably should have been stopped at some point. Alas, Rob Ryan, the man whose contract apparently requires that he be shown during broadcasts for no fewer than 10 minutes on camera, could not believe what happened right in front of his face.
–I took a closer look at just how the opportunity for that comeback drive arose, and you can check it out here. I still think the best part was how Bill Belichick said with almost no surprise or excitement about Brady, “That’s what he does. That’s what he gets paid for.”
–That Belichick and Brady had already moved on to preparing for the Jets just minutes after that dramatic win says a lot about the Patriots’ culture still being intact. Some teams would have treated that win like it was the Super Bowl. Instead, Brady and Belichick were just like, “Hm, cool.”
–The Saints offense was held in check by the Pats’ D, including Jimmy Graham being held without a catch for the first time since his first two games in the NFL. And the Patriots’ defense was at its best in the second quarter, when the Saints had drives of 32 seconds, 1:26 and 2:49, gaining 41 yards on 13 plays and punting all three times. The Saints’ final two drives lasted all of 22 seconds and 1:33, when they picked up just one yard on seven plays.
The Saints still had their moments, of course, but it was quite the showing for the Patriots’ defense, which continues to be a newfound strength for this team.
–When Malcolm Jenkins was penalized 15 yards for a hit to Kenbrell Thompkins’ head in the third quarter, everyone just had to chime in about what a bad call it was, how the NFL has gone soft and how rah-rah manly they all are. That’s all well and good, but, well, opinions don’t really matter in that case.
Whether you like it or not, the NFL has rules. And it’s a penalty when you do this:
It’s great that you think you’re tougher than the wide receiver who just got hit in the head at full speed. I’m happy for you and your overwhelming machismo. I’d hate to play against you in a touch football game. But I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter.
–At the same time, it wasn’t a penalty when Rafael Bush launched himself into the side of Danny Amendola’s head, because Amendola had the football in his hands and therefore is eligible to get knocked unconscious. It was the same thing as Bernard Pollard on Stevan Ridley in last year’s playoffs.
Whenever these hits happen, some people wonder why it’s not a penalty, and then you have to explain how the ball carrier is fair game for targeted head shots. But perhaps the fact that so many people find this to be confusing should tell the NFL that its rules don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. The league essentially says “We care about players’ brains, unless they have the ball, or unless they’re a lineman, or unless they’re on the kick return team, or unless they’re a linebacker. But hey, receivers over the middle? We care about those brains, for real.”
–If I had to pick one player who made the biggest difference on Sunday without picking Brady, I’d go with Stevan Ridley. The man is just a game-changer, and the offense is completely different when he’s healthy and holding on to the football. He ran for 96 yards on 21 carries and picked up 14 yards on his one reception of the night. And of course, he scored two touchdowns in the second quarter to give the Patriots a 17-7 lead before halftime.
He busted a run for 18 yards on the Patriots’ first touchdown drive, and he showed just how much of an upgrade he is over Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount. If the Patriots are to be as good as their record says they are, they’ll need Ridley to be the guy who showed up against the Saints.
–Chandler Jones somewhat subtly had himself a mighty big game. He sacked Brees on second-and-6 early in the fourth quarter, setting up a long third down on which Drew Brees forced a pass into coverage and was intercepted by Kyle Arrington. Jones then made the game-saving play on what turned out to be the Saints’ final drive, refusing to sell out on the fake inside handoff and instead spying Brees, breaking down and stopping the quarterback in the backfield for a loss of five.
But he also did some things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet, such as whisper sweet nothings into Brees’ ear:
And he also received some praise from Pee Wee Herman for his sack dance, which is a pretty outstanding thing to happen when you really think about it.
–It’s funny that things like game previews exist. Really, if game previews and predictions and pregame analysis could even come close to accurately describing what was going to happen once the games finally begin, there would be no need to even watch.
Yet nothing in sports is predictable, and that much was clear on Sunday, first when Tom Brady turned into Walter Peyton and high-stepped his way through the New Orleans defense, causing Tom Johnson to straight-up lose his helmet:
And we also saw a touchdown reception for Travaris Cadet in the first quarter. As the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe noted, it was the first time Cadet had touched a football during a game since Week 15 of 2012. I’m pretty sure nobody wrote that Brady would pull off an 11-yard run or that Travaris Cadet would play a factor. That’s why the games go on even after we all write our game previews.
— “Oh well hey there, big guy. What’s your name? Nice game, little buddy!”
–You guys just got Brady’d.
–I don’t mean to be that guy, but the game-winning touchdown probably shouldn’t have counted. I mean, unless holding a defensive end by the neck is allowed now.
Like I said earlier, the rules don’t always make sense, so I’ll check to see if that one was indeed legal.
—If you ask anyone who sits in an NFL press box, they’ll tell you that the best moments of any game come when the referee accidentally leaves his microphone on and lets us hear everything going on down on the field. This happened a few times with Tony Corrente on Sunday, and while hearing a player scream “you [expletive] [expletive]!” in the middle of a scrum was a good time, there was actually a pretty revealing moment.
After Kenny Stills’ touchdown reception (on which he used an amazing subtle push-off move that I haven’t seen since Randy Gene Moss was catching bombs from Brady), Corrente announced to the crowd that the play was under review, and he forgot to turn off his microphone. Corrente turned on his head set, and while I don’t have his exact quotes, essentially told the replay official, “Just tell me what you got,” because he knew it was a touchdown and didn’t want to waste his time watching a thousand replays that showed him what he already knew.
It was interesting to see how officials really feel about having each and every one of their calls picked apart by slow-motion, high definition replays. And it was comforting, too, to know the ref sometimes hates when games go to commercial breaks for needless replay reviews.
–Sports can be beautiful. That is all.
–I wrote about how cool it was that Tom Brady and David Ortiz, Boston’s remaining sports legends, delivered for their teams just 20 miles and four hours apart from each other. You can read it if you like that kind of thing. But I did find it crazy how close Sunday was to being an absolutely awful day for Boston sports.
According to FanGraphs, if you combine the odds of winning for both the Red Sox and Patriots at their lowest points on Sunday, there was just about a 0.16 percent chance of Boston having the sports night that ended up actually happening. It was the ultimate “so you’re saying there’s a chance?!” day for the local teams.
–Special shoutout to the dozens of people who responded to that tweet with “That’s what she said.” Sorry I couldn’t get back to all of you.
–If Gillette Stadium wants to be the official home of Metallica, I’m fine with it, but why does it have to be the same three songs over again? Every whistle, it’s “Enter Sandman,” “Seek & Destroy,” and maybe one more that I’m forgetting. Metallica has been around for a little while (32 years), and they’ve got quite the catalog, (about 180 songs, most of which are better than “Enter Sandman”). Mixing it up is not the worst thing that could happen.
–So what are the Patriots? I won’t pretend to know. I know that Tom Brady is excellent at his job, which allows him to make it work with guys like Austin Collie, Michael Hoomanawanui (they do not call him “The Ho Man,” despite the broadcast team’s insistence) and Kenbrell Thompkins in crunch time. They’re 5-1, clearly better than the Jets (3-3) and Bills (2-4), and probably better than the Dolphins (3-2), though that will be a mighty interesting matchup in two weeks.
To be honest, I have a hard time putting them with the NFL’s elite, but after Sunday’s game, I’m willing to admit that like most things, I may be wrong. The injuries sustained Sunday will make the next few weeks difficult, but if they can manage to go 2-1 against the Jets, Dolphins and Steelers (1-5) and head into their bye week with a 7-2 record and Rob Gronkowski added to the offense, they’ll have somehow exceeded most every expectation placed upon them prior to the start of the season. I suppose right now, it’s fair to say no matter how bad things may look, it’s never a good idea to count out a team led by Belichick and Brady. Beating an undefeated team that is considered to be the best in the NFC provided a good reminder of that.