NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
A 10-point halftime lead, as well as four starters, departed from the New England Patriots’ Week 6 battle against the undefeated New Orleans Saints. And with 2:24 remaining, the Patriots found themselves with the football, down 27-23, searching for the energy that had been vacuumed out of Gillette Stadium.
Yet at that juncture, all quarterback Tom Brady found was Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis on a downfield interception. New Orleans took control once again, running the ball three times and expiring New England’s last timeout. Head coach Sean Payton and his Saints squad could not expire the contest, however, as a vital three-and-out by the defense sent the Patriots offense back onto the field with 1:13 left.
That was all it took.
New England’s final drive started at its own 30-yard line. A deep centerfield throw to slot target Julian Edelman picked up 23. From there, the Patriots no-huddle offense found recently-signed veteran Austin Collie for another 15.
The Patriots had been in this scenario before. Just last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, the offense had a chance to tie or win with under a minute remaining in the fourth quarter. Although instead, 27 yards from the end zone, Brady tossed an interception in the direction of rookie route-runner Aaron Dobson.
This time, from the 32, Brady found different results. He dialed up Dobson on a six-yard pass near the right sideline. But following that completion, Brady saw his next two passes fall incomplete in the direction of Edelman. So, on 4th-and-4, New England needed something short, something simple and timely.
And an in-seam comeback route from Collie provided head coach Bill Belichick and Co. with just that.
It netted a first down. Collie got up, football in hand, looking for the official.
The offense scurried back to the line, and Brady spiked the ball with 10 seconds left. New England had enough time for one, maybe two shots into touchdown territory. Anything less would be mortal.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels shipped out “11” personnel with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui off-line and halfback Brandon Bolden flanking Brady in shotgun. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reacted with a 4-1 dime package with four down linemen and linebacker Curtis Lofton acting as the only members of the front.
For the Patriots, it would be about eclipsing off coverage with four verticals. At the “Z,” Dobson was set to run a fade opposite left cornerback Keenan Lewis. At the “Y,” Hoomanawanui was set to run a pick route/thin post, dragging dimeback Corey White and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro with him. At tailback, Bolden was set to slip through the B-gap and out into the flat. In the slot, Collie was set to run a skinny post, pulling safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rafael Bush inside the numbers.
And abutting the left sideline at the “X,” undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins was set to run a corner route, opposite right cornerback Jabari Greer.
Brady handled the snap and dropped back, surveying his options. He saw Dobson breaking off the line with a 10-yard bubble. He saw Hoomanawanui heading into a quadrant of Saints defensive backs. He saw Bolden veering inconspicuously through the trenches. He saw Collie bending outside Jenkins.
And he saw the 6’0”, 195-pound Thompkins pedaling low with the 5’11”, 180-pound Greer allowing a five-yard cushion.
No. 12 acknowledged the matchup.
As Collie crossed the 15-yard marker, he tilted ever so slightly inward, which conflicted with Jenkins’ intentions to push him outward. That created separation in the secondary, attracting defensive backs from the hashes and clearing bodies outside the numbers.
Thompkins, in turn, encountered a one-on-one opportunity with Greer. And with the 10-year corner playing the ball with his back to the wideout, Thompkins dipped his right shoulder and propelled behind him towards the pylons.
With the aid of an “arm wrap” from left tackle Nate Solder on right defensive end Junior Galette, Brady had space to step into the pocket. He did so, firing a pass to the outskirts towards Thompkins.
Bush was frozen between two assignments, consolidating Greer on an island with the Cincinnati product.
The ball was airborne. Thompkins watched it zero in. He extended his arms and kept his feet churning towards the plane. Concurrently, Greer planted and tried to recover the back side.
Bush rushed over to help.
The redirection arrived too late. Thompkins corked towards the incoming pass, leaving the turf and outstretching his hands. Greer lunged in front with his left arm up, dividing Thompkins’.
The receiver maintained control of his body, orienting his feet for a soft landing.
And despite and the defiant hand of Greer, Thompkins also maintained control of the football. Securing it with both hands, he would not let go.
Four steps made it official.
Not only had Thompkins reeled in his fourth touchdown of the season on a precise throw from Brady, but he had reeled in the game-winner.
With just five seconds remaining, New Orleans attempted a lateral on the ensuing kick return. Nevertheless, it would be recovered by Patriots second-round linebacker Jamie Collins.
The game was over. It was one for the record books. The eight-play, 70-yard collaboration awarded Brady his 28th fourth-quarter comeback as well as his 39th career game-winning drive, per Pro Football Reference.
Yet, more significantly, New England had knocked off the once-5-0 Saints, 30-27, on a play that had mixed success in the past. As Brady told WEEI on Monday morning, “That was probably the first one we completed that I can remember, including practice.”
It was a collective effort for the Patriots. The defense – without the likes of defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo and cornerback Aqib Talib – held together when it mattered most. The offense – without wide receiver Danny Amendola and right guard Dan Connolly – found a way to forge through in the deciding seconds.
And by the time the clock hit triple-zeroes, the game stories had to be re-written. In a matter of snaps, the lasting impression from Sunday’s cross-conference clash was no longer one of stifled momentum or insurmountable injuries.
It was one of resiliency.