FOXBORO -- It has been a trying season for Tom Brady.
He's struggled mightily at times over the course of the first six games -- his offensive output last week against the Bengals was one of the worst of his career. His body language has been scrutinized. He's had to get a group of rookie receivers up to speed, a process has likely been more difficult than he may have originally anticipated. And all of that has happened while he's sat and watched contemporary Peyton Manning put up numbers -- with help from an old pal -- that look an awful lot like what he was able to do in 2007.
But for one eight-play sequence late Sunday afternoon against the Saints, the quarterback was able to wake up the echoes and remind people that he still has the ability to deliver a transcendent comeback performance, helping lift the Patriots to a dramatic 30-27 win over New Orleans in front of a sold-out crowd at Gillette Stadium.
"With Brady back there," said running back Stevan Ridley, "we always have a chance, man."
Trailing the Saints 27-23 with just over a minute left, the New England offense took the field at its own 30-yard line. In front of a half-empty stadium in early autumn darkness, he delivered a series of darts to four different receivers, assembling would eventually become his 38th career game-winning drive. First, he hit Julian Edelman on a 23-yarder down the middle of the field to get New England into New Orleans territory. With 53 seconds left, he connected on a 15-yarder to Austin Collie on another one over the middle, and a 6-yarder to Dobson on the right.
That left the Patriots with a second-and-4 at the New Orleans 26. After a pair of deep balls to Edelman down the middle fell incomplete, that brought up a fourth down with 24 seconds remaining. This time, it was another one to Collie -- who was signed by the Patriots 10 days ago -- a nine-yarder that gave New England the first down with 11 seconds left. He spiked the ball with the understanding that he'd get one, maybe two, shots at the end zone.
But it only took one. Operating out of the shotgun, Brady took the snap and locked on to Thompkins, who was flying down the New Orleans sideline on the outside toward the end zone in what appeared to be single coverage. He put the ball up and over New Orleans corner Jabari Greer in the corner of the end zone, and the rookie came down with it.
Ballgame. Thanks for coming. Drive home safely.
"I feel like that took about five years off my life," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game.
"We had everybody going to the end zone, and he kind of snuck into the corner and I put it up there for him and he came down and made a great catch," Brady said of the game-winner. "There were a lot of great catches there at the end. Julian [Edelman] with the seam ball to start the drive and then Austin [Collie] had a fourth-down catch. [Aaron Dobson] came back and caught an in-cut that was a big play."
"Oh man," said Thompkins after the game while clutching the football in the locker room. "It was … we live for moments like that, to get your number called and have your quarterback put the trust in you and give you the opportunity to make the play."
For Thompkins, this was all so amazingly new, but for Brady, this is the latest chapter in a long volume that dates back a dozen years. Twelve years ago this week, Brady did it for the first time: On Oct. 14, 2001, the quarterback led the Patriots back from a 10-point second-half deficit for an overtime 29-26 win over Doug Flutie, Rodney Harrison and the Chargers, a team that had a young Drew Brees as a backup. That afternoon, Thompkins was 12 years old, Aaron Dobson was 10 and the Patriots were playing in old Foxboro Stadium. After the game, Brady walked into the weight room -- which doubled as the setting for the postgame press conferences -- with a smirk on his face.
"Never a doubt, huh?" Brady, who was 24 at the time, said with a smile. "Never a doubt."
"I've had a lot of great moments. I had a lot of games in college that came down to the same situation. I don’t want to put a number on it, I mean it is up there; there is no doubt about that," he said when he was asked if that was the biggest win of his career. "Like I said, this is my second year and my third game starting and I sure hope that there are bigger games ahead in bigger arenas. I mean, this is the type of thing that really builds for that next situation that comes up."
Fast forward 14 years: Brees was there again, but that was about it when it came to similarities. Late Sunday afternoon, Brady slipped on a designer sweater, hugged his son in the hallway and walked into the postgame press conference in a shiny auditorium in the state-of-the-art stadium, looking a lot different than the quarterback who beat the Chargers that overcast afternoon 12 years prior. He's a dozen years older, and certainly wiser than that 24-year-old youngster, saying that it takes a certain mindset to succeed in those situations, as well as a certain sort of teammate.
"Regardless of what happens over the course of the game, you have a chance," he said. "That’s what football is all about."
It certainly wasn't perfect -- in truth, the final stat line wasn't all that aesthetically pleasing to the eye. He was sacked five times and went 25-for-43 for 269 yards with one touchdown and a pick. (Before his final drive, he was an ugly 4-for-13 in the second half.) He overshot Danny Amendola badly on a pass play early in the third quarter on a pass that, if thrown properly, would have gone for 83 yards and a touchdown. There was also a pick late with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter on a pass play for Edelman that looked, for all the world, like it was the end of the game. And he missed more than a few connections with his receivers.
But like Ridley said, for one afternoon, he reminded us all that, as long as you have Brady, it doesn't matter how young the receivers are, how far removed your star tight end is from returning or who gets injured along the way. With No. 12, football is always a game of chance.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday:
THE DEFENSE IS FOR REAL
New England was able to limit the Saints to seven points over the first half and 20 points over the first 55 minutes of action. The Patriots forced their weekly turnover when Kyle Arrington picked off a pass intended for Jimmy Graham in the fourth quarter. And while the final yardage numbers weren't all that gaudy, they were able to get the stops when they needed them, including holding the Saints to three points in two wacky possessions over the last 2:46 of action. (On one play, Alfonzo Dennard made a huge play knocking the ball away near the New Orleans goal line.) However, their most impressive work was in holding tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch for the first time since Oct. 31, 2010 -- midway through his rookie season. A large part was because of Talib (as well as the fact that Graham spent a sizable portion of the second half on the sidelines getting treatment), but regardless, it was a very impressive defensive effort for the Patriots. While the narrative over the first four games was that the New England defense hadn't played anyone, the victory should serve as an impressive line on its resume. They are a legit Top 10 defense.
THERE ARE NOW MANY SERIOUS INJURY QUESTIONS
This wasn't a great day for the Patriots when it comes to health. Offensive lineman Dan Connolly went out in the first half with a head injury, and the team announced early in the third quarter than he would not return. Meanwhile, cornerback Aqib Talib came to the sidelines early in the third quarter after a defensive stop, tossing his helmet to the ground in frustration. He was back in the game on the next series, but left shortly after that -- the team announced that it was a hip injury, and he didn't return. Linebacker Jerod Mayo suffered a fourth-quarter shoulder injury. But the worst shot was a second-half head injury for Danny Amendola on a play where it appeared the receiver was knocked out for a brief moment in the wake of a vicious collision on the sideline. He did not return to the game. The Patriots have already had to deal with a serious set of injuries, including Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. The loss of any of those players for an extended period would place more stress on a depth chart that has been stretched perilously thin already.
CHANDLER JONES HAS A FAN IN THE UNLIKELIEST OF PLACES
Jones was part of a New England defensive front that managed to do a good job harassing Brees for much of the afternoon, and while the sack numbers won't be all that impressive on the scoresheet -- they had just one on the afternoon, to go along with three quarterback hits -- their work can be seen in the few wasted passes Brees had to discard when he was flushed out of the pocket. It wasn't an overwhelming pass rush, but they were able to ruffle Brees on a handful of occasions and keep him moving -- not bad considering that they were operating without their two best defensive tackles in Wilfork and Kelly. The sack came with just over 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and sparked a Pee-Wee Herman-style Tequila dance from Jones, which brought a shout-out from the Twitter account of Paul Reubens.
STEVAN RIDLEY HAS RETURNED TO SERVE AS CHAIR OF THE RUNNING BACK BY COMMITTEE
He didn't get the start, but Ridley had 20 carries for 96 yards and two touchdowns in the win, his finest overall outing of the season. With the exception of last week -- when he sat because of a knee issue -- he has displayed a nice consistency and dependability in returning to the role of lead back. On New England's two touchdowns drives in the first half, he and rookie receiver Aaron Dobson provided the bulk of the yardage: on the first drive, Ridley had 21 of the 80 yards, with the highlight coming when he burst up the middle for an 18-yard gain. And on the second drive, he had 28 of the 66 yards, including a nifty 14-yard pickup through the air that got the Patriots into New Orleans territory. He was able to finish off both drives nicely with touchdown runs. Through six games, he leads the team in carries (67), yardage (270) and touchdowns (two). If Ridley can continue to display that dependability, it will add another layer to the offense, one that the Patriots will continue to rely on heavily going forward. (One more note -- he needs 730 more yards to be the first back ever under Bill Belichick to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He'd have to average 73 yards per game over the final 10 games to pull it off.)
IT'S A FAMILIAR FORMULA THAT BEATS ROB RYAN
The Patriots were in no huddle for 44 of their 83 plays on the season (53 percent), far and away the highest percentage for a team that was running no-huddle on just five percent of their offensive snaps through the first five games of the year. Two things to keep in mind: One, New England wasn't playing uptempo, but once the play was done, they'd get to the line of scrimmage fairly quickly. It wasn't necessarily fast football, but would prevent substitutions on defense for New Orleans, and so quite frequently, the Saints weren't able to make the necessary personnel changes. And two, this was a formula the Patriots used to beat the Cowboys in 2011 -- that year, Rob Ryan and the Dallas defense were able to keep Brady off balance early, but New England went no huddle for much of the second, third and fourth quarter, eventually running it on 52 percent of their snaps, a season-high. Dallas wasn't able to keep up, and the Patriots escaped with a 20-16 win. With that in mind, it wouldn't be a surprise that the next time the Patriots faced a Rob Ryan-defense, they decided to step on the gas. Maybe they can produce this face again.
MICHAEL HOOMANAWANUI CAN CATCH THE BALL
Faced with the prospect of having to involve the tight ends -- who had a total of five catches on 11 targets through the first five games of the season -- Brady turned to Hoomanawanui, and he responded nicely with four catches on four targets for 57 yards. While Thompkins' game-winner was far and away the best catch of the day for the Patriots, Hoomanawanui's 19-yard pickup early in the second quarter is probably No. 2 on the list: With the Patriots sitting at 3rd and 18 from their own 26-yard line, Brady dropped back, raced through his reads and settled on Hoomanawanui, who appeared to be the fifth option on the route. The tight end caught the ball maybe seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but was able to put together a broken field run of 19 yards, getting to the sticks and allowing the Patriots to continue to move the chains. His gutty play kept the drive alive, a series that ended with a Ridley touchdown to make it 17-7 midway through the second quarter. Hoomanawanui has distinguished himself as a solid and dependable blocker over the first five games of the season, and while he'll never be confused with Rob Gronkowski, he's done just about everything that was asked of him through the first six games of the season.
THERE IS NO PROBLEM WITH THE KICKING GAME
While there was plenty of concern voiced about the state of the Patriots kicking game over the course of the preseason, Stephen Gostkowski has responded very nicely over the course of the first six games of the 2013 season. He connected on a 54-harder Sunday against the Saints -- a career-high -- and is now 16-for-17 on field goal attempts the course of the season, to go along with a perfect 11-for-11 mark on PATs. In truth, it was another mostly solid night for the special teasers: Marquice Cole had a terrific tackle in the first half on punt coverage, while punter Ryan Allen averaged 52.5 yards per punt on his opportunities. LeGarrette Blount averaged 25.5 yards on his two kickoff return chances, and even though there was a wildly ill-advised backwards pass on one punt return from Edelman to Talib, the Patriots could boast a passing grade with a relatively positive 6.7 yard average on their three punt return chances.
AQIB TALIB ISN'T THE ONLY GUY WHO IS HAVING A MONSTER YEAR IN A CONTRACT SEASON
Bottom line: The Patriots wouldn't be 5-1 if it weren't for Julian Edelman. The receiver continues to make big receptions, and while his catch rate against the Saints wasn't what it was over the course of the first five games (he had five catches on 11 targets for 57 yards on Sunday), he was a go-to guy down the stretch. On New England's last drive of the afternoon, he had the 23-yard catch that moved the Patriots into New Orleans territory -- on the play, he absorbed a vicious hit and managed to hold on to the ball. Edelman, who signed a one-year deal to return to New England for the 2013 season, now has 41 catches (on 61 targets) for 411 yards (both career highs) and two touchdowns. (By way of comparison, Wes Welker has 37 catches for 378 yards and eight touchdowns.) While it’s hard to believe Edelman would stay on the same production rate when Gronkowski and Shane Vereen return, if he stays healthy, he could be in line for a sizable payday come this offseason. (Although we're still not sure what this was all about.)
SEPARATION OPPORTUNITIES NOW LOOM FOR NEW ENGLAND
With the win on Sunday, the Patriots were able to move to 5-1 on the year. Their victory, combined with a loss from the Jets and the fact that the Dolphins were on a bye, allowed New England to start to gain a small level of separation from their AFC East foes. The Patriots are now two games up on the Jets, and can really start to move away from New York with a win in the Meadowlands next week -- New England could make it a three-game lead on New York, and add the cushion that comes with a season-sweep of a divisional foe. In addition, they’ve gained a 1 1/2 game lead on the Dolphins, and could widen that lead when Miami comes to town on Oct. 27. While those two games don’t necessarily have the sex appeal of a cross-conference clash with the Saints, they will certainly be viewed as big games in the New England locker room, and could be the first real steps in securing the division.