You can stop Tom Brady in the clutch once. You can even stop him twice. But as the New Orleans Saints defense found out in Week 6 on Sunday, going for a third time is just asking for trouble.
Brady hit Kenbrell Thompkins for a 17-yard touchdown with five seconds remaining, as the New England Patriots moved to 5-1 with a 30-27 win over the Saints at Gillette Stadium.
Taking the ball at his own 30-yard line with 1:13 remaining on the clock and zero timeouts, it seemed as if the Patriots were hoping against hope. Rob Ryan's unit had already thwarted two Brady comeback attempts within the final four minutes of the game, the latest culminating in an ugly interception for the two-time NFL MVP.
But the Patriots' stagnating offense looked rejuvenated with its back against the wall. Brady hit Julian Edelman for 23 yards, Austin Collie for 15 and Aaron Dobson for six on three consecutive completions that took the ball down to the New Orleans 26-yard line. After two straight incompletions, the Patriots faced a critical 4th-and-4, which Brady completed to Collie for nine yards.
The pass to Thompkins would come two plays later.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick "apologized" to reporters after the game for his team's nail-biting win, per ESPN's Field Yates:
A smiling Bill Belichick opens his press conference with this: "Well, I'm sorry we had to re-write some of those (game) stories at the end."— Field Yates (@FieldYates) October 13, 2013
The loss will unquestionably be a crushing blow to the Saints defense, which did its job for the first 58-plus minutes of the game. In a season defined by his lack of pass-catching options, Brady again found himself seemingly frustrated and unable to move the ball. He finished with 269 yards and a touchdown against an interception, but came into that last drive with a succession of checkdowns under his belt.
He threw an uncharacteristic interception to Keenan Lewis on the Patriots' previous drive, and watched on as Dobson dropped a fourth-down conversion on the one prior.
Luckily, Brady could rely on a unit that had so often failed him in the past: his defense. After giving up a 10-play, 81-yard drive that culminated in a 34-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Kenny Stills, the Patriots immediately clamped down their attack. They forced a Garrett Hartley field goal in four plays after Thompkins' drop, and then a three-and-out on the subsequent drive to set up Brady's game-winning drive.
Much like his counterpart, Brees struggled to find his A-game. He completed 17-of-36 passes with two touchdowns and an interception, good for his second consecutive game below the 300-yard mark. Outside of the strike to Stills, Brees completed a three-yard score to Travaris Cadet in the first quarter to give New Orleans a 7-3 lead with 1:46 remaining in the period.
The game was close throughout, with both sides having their periods of domination.
After Brees' touchdown to Cadet, New England went on a second-quarter run spurred by running back Stevan Ridley. The third-year pro scored from one yard and four yards out midway through the quarter, giving the Patriots a 17-7 lead they'd take into halftime. Ridley, who missed last week due to injury, finished with 20 carries for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
But even in victory, the Patriots again suffered critical injuries.
Brady's receiving corps was dealt yet another blow in the third quarter when Danny Amendola went down with a head injury. Amendola, who was playing in just his third game of the season, was hit by Saints defensive back Rafael Bush and appeared to be knocked out. The Patriots, neither confirming nor denying Amendola suffered a concussion, ruled him out for the remainder of the game.
Cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), center Dan Connolly (head) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder) all left the game and did not return, as WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia reported. Should any of those players be out for an extended period, the Patriots' already-depleted depth chart will only look worse.
New Orleans may also have to worry about the status of star tight end Jimmy Graham. He limped off the field midway through the fourth quarter with an injury, as NFL.com's Michael Fabiano noted. Graham also went catchless in the game, marking the first time that's happened since Week 4 of the 2010 season.
New England also came into this week having to answer an increasing number of questions about its own All-Pro tight end. Rob Gronkowski sat out again this week while recovering from multiple offseason surgeries despite being a full participant in practice. Ed Werder of ESPN reported Sunday that there was "resentment" growing within the Patriots locker room over Gronkowski's decision to sit out.
With the Patriots pulling off marvelous feats like they did Sunday without him, though, they will look even scarier to their competition once Gronk finally does return.
Drew Brees (QB, New Orleans Saints): B-
There's not much good or terrible that one can say about Brees' performance. He was neither astounding nor horrible, All-Pro-worthy nor Blaine Gabbert. In the closing moments, it looked like Brees' beautiful needle-threading to Stills would be the game's winning play.
The Patriots' improvements defensively have helped carry them to a 5-1 record thus far, and Brees was merely the latest victim of that attack. For the most part, he played well enough to win the game.
In the end, Brady had an extra one in his chamber that almost no one at Gillette Stadium could see coming.
Tom Brady (QB, New England Patriots): B
Let's be real here. Had Brady not orchestrated a game-winning drive, the entire storyline this week would be about his continued struggles.
Six games into the season—and I feel like it's pretty safe to assume we're in the midst of the weirdest professional season of Brady's career—Brady still looks and acts like the man who holds the single-season touchdown pass record. But we've reached the point where his struggles cannot wholly be attributed to the Patriots' depleted receiving corps.
Some of them can, of course. There were multiple throws Sunday where Brady and his receivers miscommunicated on the route, leading to passes to nowhere in particular. Having those types of plays this deep into the season shows that there are still a ton of kinks to be worked out in Brady's relationship with his receivers.
But that's on both parties.
So while Brady wasn't bad this week, nor has he been bad much at all this season, he was again thoroughly mediocre. Until that last drive. If Brady and his offense found that operating at a frenetic pace works best for them, perhaps that's something Bill Belichick can utilize more going forward.
It seems we're still quite a long way from this unit being cohesive, though.
Stevan Ridley (RB, New England Patriots): A
Remember all the preseason bluster about the Patriots resorting to a run-heavy offense with their pass-catching options depleted? Apparently, so did Bill Belichick.
Ridley turned in the finest performance of his season against New Orleans, rushing for 96 yards and two touchdowns despite being hobbled by a knee injury. The third-year back wasn't an initial focal point of the offense, but he came into his own starting in the second quarter.
It will be interesting to see how Belichick handles the running-back rotation going forward. The Patriots have had decent success on the ground this season, but it's been by committee. One week, LeGarrette Blount steps up; the next, it's Ridley's turn. While this style may be vexing to fantasy owners, it has given this sometimes-stagnant New England offense an element of surprise that it wouldn't otherwise have.
So while Ridley looked like his old self against New Orleans, it seems more likely than not that he'll merely be the leader of a platoon going forward.
Curtis Lofton (LB, New Orleans Saints): B
It's been an up-and-down beginning to 2013 for Lofton, but this game was definitely a positive sign. With the Patriots pounding the middle of the field, Lofton was given plenty of opportunities to make plays and perhaps signal a return to form.
He made 12 tackles (eight solo), including a rare sack of Brady. Lofton, who typically doesn't rush the passer, has only six career sacks and has never registered more than two in a season. But Rob Ryan's defense is predicated on the element of surprise, and Lofton coming in unimpeded to take down Brady certainly indicates a level of confusion.
Lofton isn't necessarily the best or most important player on his defense on a weekly basis, but his involvement in a ton of plays deserves some merit.
The Patriots hit the road next week, where they will rekindle their rivalry with Rex Ryan's New York Jets. New York came within a field goal of defeating New England despite being a heavy underdog in the teams' first meeting.
The Saints, meanwhile, will get next Sunday off before continuing their AFC East tour at home against the Buffalo Bills.