FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The stadium was half-empty. Thousands of Patriots fans were stuck in traffic on the highway outside of Gillette Stadium because they left New England's game against the New Orleans Saints early thinking it was over.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton apparently thought the same.
Fans are fans. They want to get home and hit the hay. They have to work in the morning.
Payton should know better. When Tom Brady is on the field, the game is never over—ever. You must continue to be aggressive and nasty. Brady is Wolverine. There is adamantium in that skeletal structure.
The Saints didn't take their first loss, 30-27 on a last-minute Brady miracle drive, just because Payton choked the game away. That would be too simple. He did something far worse. He did something that is actionable, arrogant and just flat-out dumb.
He underestimated Brady.
Give Brady an inch, he'll send you a postcard from Super Bowl media day. This is the 38th game where Brady has led the Patriots to a win from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. He's done this 31 times in the regular season and seven times in the playoffs.
Payton sure as hell knew about Brady's track record, yet he went inexplicably conservative late in the contest—almost daring Brady to beat him.
Don't blame the Saints defense. Brady has skewered better than this group. Blame Payton, who runs the offense, for going so uber-conservative in the final minutes that he effectively gave Brady two chances to win the game.
It's easy to slobber over Brady's greatness (I'm doing it here), and he was brilliant. That is true. He has stunned many times over, and in this moment, he did the same, throwing a perfect pass to Kenbrell Thompkins with five seconds remaining. The faces on the Patriots players after the game seemed flabbergasted, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan just looked exasperated.
Many players on the Patriots and Saints are Brady virgins. They haven't seen him do this in person—just on YouTube.
"...to witness that," said corner Kyle Arrington, "it's just incredible, man."
"I'm still shocked," said defensive back Alfonzo Dennard.
"When you have a guy like Brady," running back Stevan Ridley said, "you always have a chance."
The key sequences were to come in the final three minutes of the contest.
The Saints had a 24-23 lead, and after stopping New England on fourth down, they took over at the Patriots' 24. Payton called for a run on first down that went for four yards and a run on second that went for minus-one.
So, fine, he was trying to run off clock. Then on third down, Payton called for a safe pass to Marques Colston, who hadn't been a factor all night. Why not go to Darren Sproles on some sort of swing pass, a more aggressive play that would have also eaten more clock?
Or why not be aggressive on all three downs, knowing that you really need to score a touchdown because Brady is on the other sideline? Instead, Payton settled for a field goal.
After the game, Payton was asked about his play-calling, and the tenor of some of the questions was that he should have run the ball even more. This is the wrong approach to take against Brady because he is so explosive. Payton seemed to intuitively know this, which is why he threw the ball on one down during that series.
Anything other than going all-out in that spot is daring Brady to beat you.
"Look, we had two four-minute drives," Payton said. "They were what they were. We were kind of paying attention to the clock, and we were trying to get some yardage and possibly a first down. We were getting a heavy front with the risk of throwing it and the clock stopping. So we can wrestle with that for a while, but they made the stops when they needed to, got the ball back and made plays. Next question."
I think Payton thought: I'll kick the field goal, and my defense will stop Brady. The problem was, after New Orleans made the kick and the score was 27-23, there was still 2:29 left on the clock. To Brady, that's like an hour.
Then the Saints intercept Brady, and this is where Payton is even more arrogant. The Saints have the ball at their 30 with 2:16 left. Payton called for three straight runs, including Brees running around the left end for a five-yard loss. No aggressive play-calling at all. Against Brady?
The predictable happened. Brady got the ball back with 1:13 left and paraded down the field. Boom, boom, boom. If Payton had been more aggressive, Brady would have had far less time.
Brady has 342 career touchdown passes and, against the Saints, tied Fran Tarkenton for the fourth most in NFL history. How does Payton think he got all of those? Because he's terrible?
After the game, Brady ran off the field, pumping his fist to the few fans left in the stadium. The players were still in a state of shock. When he met with the press, he looked calm as always. Like he had just picked up the groceries.
"There's a lot of character and mental toughness (on the team), and that showed," he said.
Brady didn't smirk or pat himself on the back. He never does. He treated it like any other game.
Payton treated him like any other quarterback. And that was just dumb.