FOXBOROUGH — After the Patriots’ loss in Cincinnati in Week 5, and after their offense began to struggle — again — in the second half of Sunday’s game against the Saints, there were more than a few people starting to write the epilogue to Tom Brady’s stellar career.
On sports talk radio, on Twitter, in the fast-emptying stands at Gillette Stadium, as the fourth quarter wound down, the sentiment was growing: It looks like Brady’s best days are far behind him.
But in eight plays, over 70 yards, and in just 73 timeout-deficient seconds, Brady announced loudly that he’s not done yet. Save your epitaphs for another day.
Maybe even another season.
In a career full of he-did-it-again moments, Brady pulled off an all-time classic against the Saints, throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins in the back left corner of the end zone with five seconds left to give the Patriots a 30-27 win.
“I was a fan. I had the best seats in the house for that last drive,” Kyle Arrington said of the Patriots’ comeback. “It’s hard to put into words but . . . it’s Brady. It’s Brady.”
Even for Bill Belichick, it was a memorable final few minutes.
“Sorry if you had to rewrite some of those stories there at the end,” the Patriots coach told reporters. “What a football game. I feel like that took about five years off my life.”
That the Patriots were even in position for one final possession was remarkable, and likely to be one of the many things that Saints coach Sean Payton thinks about often in the days to come.
Known as an aggressive play-caller — his onside kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV cemented his reputation as a gutsy coach — Payton’s team found itself in a potentially game-sealing situation and didn’t do enough with it.
After New Orleans scored to take a 24-23 lead with 3:29 to play, the Patriots could not move the ball. A second-down pass to Brandon Bolden went off his chest, and a third-down incompletion to Julian Edelman followed.
Though they faced fourth and 6 from their 24, the Patriots went for it. But Brady’s pass for Aaron Dobson was dropped, and the Saints got the ball back, the opportunity for a touchdown nearly gift-wrapped for them.
New Orleans got the ball with 2:46 to play. The Saints took a total of 22 seconds off the clock, and settled for a field goal, going up, 27-23.
Probably not what they were looking for. But the Patriots’ offense got the chance to redeem itself when on the first play of the ensuing drive, Brady looked deep for Edelman, who was double-covered. The pass was off the mark and intercepted by Keenan Lewis.
Now New Orleans had 2:16 to seal the win, and the Patriots had only one timeout and the two-minute warning in their pocket.
How things played out: 2-yard carry for Khiry Robinson. Patriots timeout. Pierre Thomas 1-yard carry. Two-minute warning. Drew Brees bootleg attempt, dropped by New England’s Chandler Jones for 5-yard loss. Punt.
The Saints had taken some time off the clock, but not nearly enough.
Brady and the offense started at their 30, and he completed his first three passes, to Edelman, Austin Collie (playing in his first game as a Patriot and on the field for the first time during this drive), and Dobson, then missed two shots intended for Edelman. Collie made the catch on fourth down, Brady spiked the ball to stop the clock, and then came the touchdown to Thompkins.
“Really proud of our team,” Belichick said. “The Saints are a real good football team. It was a great 60-minute battle. They made a lot of plays, we made some plays, and in the end, we made a big one.”
The Patriots had moved the ball well in the first half, with Brady going 16 for 22 for 163 yards, finding seven different receivers, and New England was ahead, 17-7, entering the third quarter.
The New England defense forced New Orleans to punt on four of its five first-half possessions, including three three-and-outs.
Though the Saints would come back to tie the game and then take the lead, against a quarterback the caliber of Brees and an offense that has been potent and successful in recent years, New England had a sound game plan and carried it out very well.
Before suffering a third-quarter hip injury, Aqib Talib shadowed All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham all over the field, and even after Talib left the game, the Patriots did a good job on Graham — after a 10-catch, 135-yard performance a week earlier against the Bears and a 10-catch, 179-yard performance against Tampa Bay in Week 2, Graham was targeted six times, and had zero catches.
“We just went out there and played,” said Devin McCourty, who drew duty on Graham after Talib went down. “All week, we knew. All we kept hearing was, ‘Jimmy Graham,’ and we knew we’d just have to come in and play. We’d have to play him tough. You don’t come in and say, ‘We just want to try to contain him.’ We just can’t know the game plan, we’ve got to try to shut him down.”
The Patriots’ aggressive game plan only netted one sack, but Brees completed less than half of his pass attempts (17 for 36) and had an interception when he threw too high for Graham and Arrington was in perfect position to made the catch.
After watching the defense step up throughout the season and the offense play unevenly, Sunday was the type of complementary win Brady had been hoping for.
“The defense made some huge stands. They played great when they needed to, against a really good offense and a team that’s been scoring a lot of points,” Brady said. “They’ve been playing good all year. Offensively, we still need to do a better job getting the ball in the end zone. It was better, but we’re not quite there yet.”