FOXBORO -- Ten years ago this past week, Tom Brady led the Patriots on the first comeback of his professional career, carrying New England past the Chargers in front of a rain-soaked crowd at Foxboro Stadium. Brady rallied the Patriots from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to tie San Diego at the end of regulation, and then took them on a game-winning drive in overtime.
While he already had a win as a professional under his belt against the Colts two weeks before that, it was the win over the Chargers that was the birth of the legend -- grace under pressure, leading his team back from the brink late in the game to post the win.
“Never a doubt, huh?” the young quarterback joked after that 2001 game.
And while he’s changed as a quarterback and a human being, that same flair for the dramatic was there Sunday against the Cowboys. Just like he did back that soggy afternoon in Foxboro Stadium back in 2001, he delivered a jolt to the sold-out crowd at Gillette by leading the Patriots on a 10-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter to turn a 16-13 deficit into a 20-16 win over the Cowboys and give New England it’s fifth win in six games to open the season (click here for the full recap).
The haircuts, postgame outfits and taste in women have changed, but when it comes to Brady, he’s still the comeback king. To quote David Byrne: "Same as it ever was."
“When you have a quarterback like Tom, anything can happen as long as there’s time on the clock,” said tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was an 11-year-old when Brady engineered his first comeback drive as a professional in 2001. “He had enough time to get it done.”
In a season when Brady has put up video-game numbers, he finished a relatively pedestrian 27-for-41 for 289 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two interceptions and was sacked three times in the win. He struggled through large portions of the first three quarters against the Dallas defense. But as was the case, he remains the best in the game with the money on the table. On New England’s final drive, he was 8-for-9 for 78 yards, putting a capper on things with an 8-yard pass to Hernandez with 27 seconds left.
“When you’re playing against a quarterback like Tom Brady, he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, whose defense had allowed just one New England touchdown on its first nine possessions. “So you have to try to make it hard on him.”
Faced with his first late-game deficit of the year, and his first since last December against the Packers, Brady took over the New England offense on its own 20-yard line with 2:31 remaining. Brady hit Hernandez on a 16-yard pass on the right side to open the drive. That connection was followed by passes to Rob Gronkowski (11 yards) and Wes Welker (5 yards) that took the Patriots to the two-minute warning and the Dallas 48-yard line.
A 10-yard pass to Welker and a 9-yarder to Woodhead got New England to the Dallas 29. The Patriots stalled briefly but ended up collecting themselves as Brady steered them to the Dallas 14 with 35 seconds remaining. Brady then connected with Hernandez on an 8-yard pattern over the middle that got the Patriots into the end zone with 27 seconds remaining.
“It was great protection. Great catch by Aaron,” Brady said of the final sequence. “A lot of guys made big plays on that drive; we really needed it. We really kind of squandered away some opportunities throughout the game but came up big when we needed it. The defense was really incredible today. That’s a good offense with a lot of damn good football players. They really buckled down when they needed to and offensively we put together a drive when we needed to.”
That cold and rainy October day against the Chargers was comeback No. 1. On Sunday, it marked the 32nd time in Brady’s career that he led the Patriots to a victory following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. In addition, with the victory, Brady and Bill Belichick have tied Dan Marino and Don Shula for the most wins by a quarterback-head coach combination in NFL history at 116.
In 10 years, so much has changed about Brady and the Patriots: Ten years ago, after the win over the Chargers, the bachelor quarterback hopped in his SUV and drove home to his condo in Quincy while the franchise dreamed about one day making it to the Super Bowl. On Sunday night, he walked out of Gillette Stadium hand-in-hand with his supermodel wife, stepping into his luxury automobile before driving off effortlessly into the darkness. Meanwhile, the win sends the team into the bye week at 5-1, in first place in their division and with an early lead in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC.
But 10 years later, it’s clear that some things just aren’t going to change.
“He’s in Canton, there’s no doubt,” Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said of Brady. “The guy is clutch in the end. That’s what makes him special.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
AARON HERNANDEZ REMAINS A MATCHUP NIGHTMARE
The Patriots tight end was the guy Brady went to with the game on the line. On New England’s game-winning 10-play drive, the quarterback found Hernandez twice: first on the 16-yarder that opened the drive and second on the 8-yarder over the middle for the touchdown. In the end, Hernandez was targeted a team-high 14 times and came away with eight catches for 74 yards (both of which were also tops on the team).
On the game-winning touchdown, wide receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch drew what Brady called “combination coverage,” while tight ends Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski appeared to be in man coverage. According to Hernandez, Gronkowski drew the safety and Hernandez was single-covered, making Hernandez the first choice.
“I had an in route and Gronkowski had an out route and he’s a great player so he drew the safety’s attention,” Hernandez said. “I came around and Tom made a great throw and I just had to make the catch.”
Hernandez is a rare find -- a tight end who has the size to work occasionally as a blocker but is clearly more of a presence in the passing game. Despite missing two games with a knee injury, he’s third on the team in receptions with 27 and three touchdowns, and fourth with 289 receiving yards.
“[He] runs very good routes,” Brady said of Hernandez. “Coach always says a receiver should get open, catch the ball and then do something with it after they catch it. Aaron has really done all three things. He’s really made a big jump from his first year to his second year, and that’s why he’s out there at the end of the game.”
ANDRE CARTER CAN JUMP
The defensive end busted through Sunday against the Cowboys, coming away with a pair of sacks and becoming the first New England defender to have a two-sack game this season. It was his 10th career two-sack game, and the first since he had two for the Redskins against Oakland on Dec. 13, 2009.
“He’s been playing very well for us,” Belichick said of Carter. “Andre is very athletic and he’s powerful. He’s a strong guy. He’s got a good power rush and he can also rush off the edge. He comes hard every play. He’s got a great motor. Nobody plays with more effort than he does. He tees it up every time. Sometimes he just outworks those guys.”
The first came with just over five minutes left in the first quarter when he overpowered his man and took down Tony Romo for a 6-yard sack that led to a Dallas punt. But the second was far more important, coming midway through the third quarter when the Cowboys were sitting on the New England 7-yard line, poised to take a lead for the first time all afternoon. Carter again beat his man and picked up an 11-yard sack, giving the Cowboys a third-and-18 and ultimately forcing them to settle for a field goal.
“It felt great,” said Carter, who now has 2.5 sacks on the season. “One thing that people don’t understand, especially when it comes to sacks -- sacks and coverage, everything else, it just comes hand in hand. So it’s just something that we always talk about and discuss. It was just a blessing and I thank God and I just thank the 10 guys who were around to do their job. When the opportunity presented itself to make a play, we made a play.”
After his second sack, Carter leaped high in the air in celebration. After the game, he called the move his “Quincy jump,” invoking the name of his son.
“I don’t know what it was -- it just kind of sprouted up,” he said with a laugh. “That’s my son. The Quincy jump. I don’t know how it happened, it just kind of happened, one of those things. Sacks are hard to come by, especially now that the league has changed so much. So the more you can get, the better.”
In the end, the Patriots picked up four quarterback hits -- two from Carter and one each from Albert Haynesworth and Brandon Spikes.
“We might not be getting the sacks, but we’re getting the pressure, we’re getting to the quarterback,” Vince Wilfork said. ”Sometimes he’s throwing it away, sometimes he’s scrambling and getting rid of it, or sometimes he’s scrambling for some yardage.
“One thing we say is, just keep putting pressure, just keep going. Because once you get the pass defense with the secondary and linebackers on point with the defensive front, that’s when you’ll start seeing more sacks and more pressures and stuff like that,” he added. “It definitely works hand in hand. We’re not going to take all the credit. Those guys have to cover in the back, and I think they’ve been doing it. Each week we’re improving as a defense.”
WITH ITS BACK TO THE WALL, THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE PLAYED WELL
The Cowboys were knocking on the door on several occasions on Sunday, but the Patriots were able to halt the Dallas offense when it was in the shadow of the New England goal post on several occasions, coming away with big stops at the right time. In all, the Patriots were able to turn away the Cowboys on a pair of red zone trips and got a key turnover and another stop when they were inside the New England 30. In a one-possession game, the big plays in the red zone were huge.
In the first quarter, the Cowboys twice broke the Patriots’ 30-yard line, but on both occasions New England was able to hold them out of the end zone, once limiting them to a 48-yard field goal from Doug Bailey (after a four-play drive actually went seven yards in reverse) and then coming away with a fumble when Tashard Choice lost the handle at the New England 21-yard line and Gerard Warren came away with it. (The Cowboys ended up converting their only red zone chance shortly before the end of the half when Romo hit Witten for a 1-yard touchdown to make it 13-10 New England with 33 seconds left in the half.)
In the second half, Dallas made three trips into the Patriots red zone and came away with only six points to show for it. Carter had the HUGE 11-yard sack to knock the Cowboys out of range the first time, but the second one was the strangest play of the night -- Romo tried a fluky shovel pass to Choice at the New England 5, but the play was blown up in the backfield by Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes and Dallas ended up losing five yards.
“Going down in there in the red area, on third down, they always have something they want to do out of the ordinary. I didn’t know it was going to be a shovel pass. I thought it was going to be some type of run,” Wilfork said. “But I sent the alert, and everybody was on point, and that was a huge, huge stop for us. To be able to walk away making them kick a field goal, that was a big stop for our defense.”
Spikes was key in helping blow up the shovel pass, and he had perhaps his best game of the season, coming away with eight tackles (six solo), as well as one tackle for a loss and one quarterback hit.
“All week we have been trying to say that when there is sudden change, you have to stand up and answer. I think we did that,” Spikes said. “Overall on defense, guys flew around. We had some problems with tackling, but getting all those hats to the ball, we took care of it.”
"It’s just having our teammates' backs. Sometimes things aren’t going to go the way we want them to, and we just have to be there and do our job. Like I said, we were there to stand up and we got the job done. Anytime we get the opportunity to go out there and there is a sudden change, we want to come out holding them to three [points] or getting the ball back and giving it to the offense.”
ADD JASON WITTEN TO THE LIST OF TIGHT ENDS THE PATRIOTS HAVE BEEN ABLE TO CONTAIN
The Patriots made a habit over the first five games of the season of shutting down some of the league’s elite tight ends, including Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller. Entering Sunday’s action, opposing tight ends had averaged just three catches for 37 yards per game against New England, the lowest numbers of any opposing skill position in the passing game.
On Sunday against the Cowboys -- the second consecutive week when the Patriots faced a team for whom the tight end was the top target -- they were able to mostly keep Jason Witten in check, as the seven-time Pro Bowler was held without a catch until there were 33 seconds left in the first half. That’s when he collected Romo’s first touchdown pass of the night, a 1-yarder that made it 13-10 New England just before halftime.
Witten had three more catches on the afternoon and finished with four receptions for 48 yards. But he was a nonfactor for much of the afternoon, as the Patriots tried to get physical with Romo’s favorite target, and his totals represent his lowest output across the board since last year’s regular-season finale, when he was held to four catches for 46 yards by Philadelphia.
“I just tried to get a jam on him anytime he was out on the field,” said New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who was one of several players who were charged with slowing down Witten. “When a receiver or tight end is trying to run his route, he is not really thinking about getting hit, so when you can get a shot on him you want to make the best of it. Every time I was able to get a hit I was trying to basically knock him down, because you have to respect a guy like that, because anytime you don’t touch him he is going to run to the middle of the field. And that is where Romo is going to go.”
IF YOU HAD ORLANDO SCANDRICK IN THE ‘WHO’LL BE THE FIRST TO STOP WES WELKER?’ POOL, COME UP AND ACCEPT YOUR PRIZE
Darrelle Revis, maybe. Possibly Champ Bailey. But Orlando Scandrick? The Cowboys nickel corner had help for a portion of the afternoon, but ultimately he was the one who did the lion’s share of work when it came to slowing down Welker. The slot receiver, who had his way with some of the best defensive backs in the league through the first five games of the season, came into Sunday’s game averaging nine catches for almost 150 yards and one touchdown a game.
Against the Cowboys, he ended up with six catches for 45 yards, both season-lows.
“It was me versus him a lot,” Scandrick said. “Pretty much, I followed him. I followed him a lot and we battled, tugging, pushing, it was a battle. What makes it tougher, when they’re going no-huddle, sometimes he’s making breaks and I’m not getting out [on him]. I’m not going to make excuses, they made more plays than us, they won the game. I tip my cap to them.”
Asked if the Cowboys did something out of the ordinary to take Welker out, fellow wide receiver Deion Branch -- who had three catches for 69 yards -- said he didn’t think so.
“No, we just executed the plays which were called for this game and [Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob] Ryan had his guys ready. They did a great job with the bye week and took advantage of it, made some plays and put pressure on the quarterback,” Branch said. “I won’t know until I watch the film, but I know we made a lot of mistakes which kept us from scoring, and I think this was our worst performance on offense. The two other teams stepped it up for us, [the] defense did a great job and special teams did a great job.”
THE RAMS OF 1999 AND 2000 POPPED SOME CHAMPAGNE SUNDAY EVENING
For the first time since last November -- a stretch of 13 consecutive regular-season games -- the Patriots were not able to score 30 points. They would have tied the record of 14 straight set by the Greatest Show on Turf if they broken the 30-point barrier on Sunday against the Cowboys, but Dallas was able to slow them down just enough to allow those fabled Rams keep their record.
As efficient as the New England offense was on its final drive of the night -- as good a drive as you will see all season from Brady & Co. -- it was sloppy and ragged for most of the rest of the afternoon. The Patriots committed a season-high four turnovers, three of them on offense, with Brady throwing a pair of interceptions. The quarterback was sacked three times, and New England had three drives of three plays or less.
“We knew we had to take them up front and have guys play disciplined football,” said Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears. “[Brady] capitalizes on defensive mistakes better than anybody. We just tried to keep pressure on him, make him move his feet and be uncomfortable in the pocket. We got it done some of the time, but it wasn’t enough.”
THE NO-HUDDLE REMAINS A KEY PART OF THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE
The Patriots entered the game having run the no huddle on just over 21 percent of their plays from scrimmage over the course of the first five games. More often than not, when they’ve used it, good things have happened -- they have frequently been able to take advantage of teams that weren’t ready for the uptempo approach and gain important yards in the process.
On Sunday against the Cowboys, they went no huddle more often than they have all season long -- of the 69 plays the Patriots’ offense ran, they utilized no huddle on 36 of the snaps, or 52 percent of their plays. They went heavy on the no huddle in the second half (23 snaps), and on six of their 10 plays from scrimmage on their game-winning drive, the Patriots used the no huddle.
The quick tempo left the Cowboys feeling a little shortchanged -- at one point, Dallas defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was seen raging at the officials. It turns out that the Cowboys felt they didn’t get the same sort of substitution opportunities that New England was able to get.
“We will go back and look at those situations very specifically, but the rule is, if they substitute, they have to give us the opportunity to substitute,” said Dallas coach Jason Garrett. “That happened, and we were in the no huddle and they certainly did a very good job on their end making sure we couldn’t snap the ball when we were changing personnel. So, we are confident the officials were trying to call it equally on both sides. But that is what happened and we will evaluate those situations when we see the tape tomorrow.”
THE GUYS IN THE SECONDARY PLAYED A LOT OF FOOTBALL
On an afternoon where the New England secondary was as shorthanded as it has been all season long, they were able to do just enough to slow the Dallas’ passing game down. While the numbers weren’t ideal, the Patriots were able to hold Dez Bryant in check with the game on the line -- after Bryant made a 16-yard catch over the middle with 3:22 left in the second quarter, he didn’t have a single reception the rest of the way.
“We wanted to stick together,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “So I think we do a great job of that. It’s ‘We all we got’ -- that’s what we always say defensively. I think we just all banded together and left it all out on the field.”
Because safeties Josh Barrett and Sergio Brown and cornerback Ras-I Dowling were all pregame inactives, the group of defensive backs that were in there -- particularly corners Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden and Arrington, as well as safeties Pat Chung and James Ihedigbo -- were forced to play extended minutes against one of the stronger passing attacks in the league.
“We had our moments, but there are some things we definitely need to do better,” Belichick said. “But I think our guys competed well – Kyle [Arrington] and Devin [McCourty], especially out there. They played a lot of football. They competed hard. It wasn’t perfect. Leigh [Bodden] gave us some snaps in there on nickel defense. James [Ihedigbo] has done a good job for us over the last couple of weeks at safety with the communication and tackling and so forth.”
Their standout moment likely came on Dallas’ first possession of the afternoon. On a series that was highlighted by a 22-yard pass play over the middle from Romo to Bryant that came at the expense of McCourty, the Cowboys were in a 3rd and three at their own 43-yard line. That’s when Romo saw at a New England secondary that was giving him a man-to-man look, but eventually settled into a zone. Romo meant to fire the ball out to Bryant, but it ended up going right to Arrington for his fourth interception of the season.
“You know, contrary to belief, my hands aren’t all that bad,” Arrington said with a laugh. “We were trying to do a lot of disguise throughout the whole game -- definitely early in the game as well. So I tried to give him a man-to-man look and came off and played zone. Right place at the right time.”
“Defensively, their secondary played a lot of zone-blitz type things, which the corners bail,” Romo said. “We just weren’t able to get up on the leverage a lot today, and that’s why you saw probably a lot of 7- to 10-yard type stuff. We really were moving the ball -- it’s just a matter of sometimes shorting ourselves with one play, whether it was a flag or a missed assignment or something. I was proud of the guys’ effort. We just obviously didn’t get the job done.”
‘IT’S MUCH BETTER TO BE 5-1 THAN 4-2’
The words were uttered by Brady toward the end of his postgame press conference, and are fairly representative of the team heading into the bye week. The players got Monday off, but will return on Tuesday and Wednesday before being cut loose for the bye weekend. In all, they’ll have Thursday through Monday off before returning on Tuesday, Oct. 25.
But now, they’ll be able to head into their brief vacation on a positive note.
“It’s always good coming into the bye week with a win,” Carter told reporters. “I’ve had some times where I’ve come into the bye week with a loss and you just dread that bye week for a long time. So to come in very successful is good. We still have a lot of studying to do and (have to) prepare for our next opponent. For guys that are nicked up, (it will) give them an opportunity to rest up and to heal, and we’ll have the rest of the cavalry come back and help us out for the next game.”
When the Patriots do return, they will open a key stretch of games that includes road dates with the Steelers (Oct. 30) and the Jets (Nov. 13) and home contests with the Giants (Nov. 6) and Kansas City (Nov. 21). It all builds toward that post-Thanksgiving stretch that will really determine what this team can really accomplish.
As for a reality check to this point in the season, Brady said the 5-1 mark is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything in the long-term.
“It’s not even November yet,” Brady said. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be, and nowhere near where we’re going to be in a couple of months. We just have to keep working hard and keep being mentally tough and keep doing what our coaches tell us to do and try to go out there and win these games.”