FOXBOROUGH -- Continuing a streak of faulty first halves and extraordinary comebacks, the Patriots beat the Cleveland Browns 27-26 Sunday night in what I'll personally term as an instant classic.
Any time you have a successful onside kick recovery -- which was the first in Patriots franchise history to lead to a game-winning touchdown -- you have to consider where the particular contest in question rests on the pantheon of great wins. In this case, for a team as lauded and trophied up as the Patriots, we'll just wonder aloud where Sunday's game ranks in terms of regular season victories.
So far this season, they've had a number of compelling candidates, including the team's thrilling come-from-behind victory over the New Orleans Saints. But that was two months ago. There's been plenty of excitement since then.
Sunday's comeback comes on the heels of superb wins over the Denver Broncos (34-31) and Houston Texans (34-31).
While the talent and expectations of the competition has varied, each win has inserted a level of football titillation that only those sensitive to cardiac arrest might disapprove.
It's just been that kind of season. And Sunday's game was no different.
With that in mind, here's my five takeaways:
1. Losing Rob Gronkowski only seemed devastating -- Gronkowski's loss to a leg injury in the third quarter was profound for a number of reasons. There was the instant worry of his health, which is still in question, and then there was the long-term concerns for the Patriots' offense, which struggled mightily this season without him despite winning five of six games. His presence in the red zone has been the most striking, with the team boosting its touchdown rate from 40.9 percent to 67.9, no doubt because defenders have to account for him.
But on Sunday, the Patriots seemed to find poise in dealing with the aftermath of his dramatic injury. At the time, they were down 12-0 to the Browns. But on the team's very next offensive series, they marched 68 yards down the field for their first points, a 33-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. On their next series, they took only three plays before Shane Vereen ran in a 6-yard touchdown. The Patriots would go on to score on their next three drives, five in a row in all, to take the game.
After enduring such a devastating injury to one of the team's integral players, the Patriots flashed what appeared to be the mental composure of a championship contender. There was mettle and there was grit. And even a little luck on their side. That's got to count for something as the team goes forward.
2. The role falls to James Develin, Matthew Mulligan -- Right away, the Patriots needed to find out if they had dependable tight ends that can get the job done with Gronk out. They won't be asked to perform at his high level of offensive production, but they have to be capable and handle the not-so-glamorous role of blockers and check-down options in the passing game. It appears that Mulligan and Develin are up to the task. The duo have already been primarily used as blockers, but each has shown flashes of their other talents. Develin caught a 31-yard pass and Mulligan added a 15-yard reception.
"Honestly, I'm kind of surprising myself a little bit," Develin said of his receiving skills. "I haven't done these things since high school. It's been kind of fun discovering that as well."
The two take the loss of Gronkowski seriously, with Mulligan saying he would pray for his teammate. But Gronkowski's injury provides an opportunity that neither can ignore.
"Having Gronk go out like that in the game was tough," Develin said. "He's a huge guy in our offense. But the NFL is such a next-man-up kind of thing and so when my number was called I just knew that I had to go out there and do the job. I'm thankful that our coaches prepare us for any situation, so I felt comfortable going in there and trying to do the thing."
Patriots fans will have to get comfortable with it, too. The team's only other experienced tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, is still out with a knee injury.
3. Special teams at the forefront again -- The Patriots pride themselves on having practiced and prepared for any situation. The onside kick is just another item on the list that the team goes through each week -- each day, in fact -- that seemingly never comes up. That's until it did.
Gostkowski's onside kick in the fourth quarter with just 1:01 remaining in the game will go down in the Patriots record books as the catalyst for the team's come-from-behind win.
"That's one of those rare things where I've been practicing onside kicks for so long and I've probably only done like four to five in a game, even going back to high school," Gostkowski said. "So it's just one of those things that you just got to focus on what you're doing and give your team a chance. It's a very low percentage play. My job is to get it 10 yards and to give the team a chance. The ball bounced our way, so it's pretty exciting."
The last time Gostkowski or a teammate successfully recovered an onside kick? In college.
Patriots corner Kyle Arrington managed to come up with the ball after a bit of a scrum.
"I slid and I saw that the ball was just about to be 10," Gostkowski said. "And I kind of waited. And that's the thing. I kick it and I try to get in front of it, and I slide, and it's supposed to fall right to me. And before it got to be 10 the guy came and hit me, and I had the thing and luckily it bounced off him and right into Kyle's hands and it was just a great play.
"I've never been that jacked up after a game. I don't celebrate too much after field goals. But when we get an onside kick, I was all over the place. I probably looked like an idiot there."
Last week, Gostkowski nailed two 50+ yard field goals to help the Patriots beat the Houston Texans. He also has hit game-winning field goals against the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills this season.
That's probably why, as of Dec. 4, Gostkowski was leading all AFC place-kickers for Pro Bowl votes with 150,820.
4. First half woes continue -- The Patriots put up another donut in the first half. That can't be ignored despite the team's amazing comeback.
It appears offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels needs an entire half of football to assess the defenses the team is facing before making adjustments. Or, more likely, before Bill Belichick unsheathes the wrath of God in the locker room to motivate this team. They've been outscored 47-7 in the first half of the last three games and there are no immediate answers to the problem.
"We're not trying to give them those leads and certainly our execution wasn't great, but we came through when we needed to," said Tom Brady. "We've been playing 60 minutes all year. We're 10-3. It was a great win."
5. Stevan Ridley played a part, but was overshadowed by Shane Vereen -- Almost lost, but not forgotten, was Ridley's return to the fold. He had 35 yards on eight carries. He got his first touch in the second quarter, but clearly he took a back seat to LeGarrette Blount, who was able to gain 42 yards on as many carries. Brandon Bolden was healthy scratch from the game after missing practice Friday. None of whom seem to have the impact that Vereen did, catching a franchise record 12 passes for 153 yards as a running back.
On one drive, Vereen did it all himself, accounting for 72 yards of offense, including a 50-yard catch and run down the sideline and 6-yard touchdown run. Since coming back from his wrist injury, he's been simply fantastic. Now, with these records in tow, you could make the argument that he is one of the best receiving running backs the Patriots have ever had under Belichick's helm. Kevin Faulk is officially on notice.
Extras -- It was kind of an odd scenario watching Willis McGahee and Billy Cundiff do their best against the Patriots Sunday. McGahee had a crucial fumble last season against the Patriots while with the Denver Broncos, which led to a Patriots win. In his somewhat illustrious career, he is 0-for-9 against the Patriots all-time. And then there's Cundiff, who missed a 32-yard field goal wide left in the AFC Championship game just two years ago while with the Baltimore Ravens. There was only 15 seconds left on the clock then. Both of their careers have been in a bit of a tailspin. So when Cundiff lined up for a 58-yard attempt, with just one second left on the clock, all you could do was hold your breath. You know they want it for the win, but you also know they want it for redemption. This time, Cundiff managed to get the kick off and have it lined up straight, but he couldn't come up with the distance. For him and McGahee, the Patriots are a quagmire that they can't seem to solve or overcome. That's their NFL journey in a nutshell.