Vintage Tom Brady.
Or, perhaps, the best way to describe it is simply: "Unicorns! Show ponies! Where's the beef?!"
It's been a season of ups and downs for Brady and the Patriots offense. Whether underthrown, overthrown, dropped or deflected, footballs have indiscriminately hit the ground when the offense is at work.
The Patriots have continued to win, but the historic tendency of the Patriots offense to be an inherent work of perfection has meant the downs have earned far more public attention than the ups. Heck, it was even an up-and-down game for Brady and Co. The veteran signal-caller was 16-of-20 in the first half, and was 4-of-15 in the second half prior to the final drive.
But in that final minute, the downs mostly went away and the ups had their moment in the spotlight. Brady connected on four of his six aimed passes (one spike) for 70 yards and the game-winner.
There's no question that Brady and the Patriots offense still has work to do, but things came together when it mattered most. Here's a breakdown of how it all went down.
First throw: Deep middle to Julian Edelman for 23 yards
Patriots personnel: 10 (one running back, no tight ends, four wide receivers)
The Saints showed a blitz with the linebackers creeping up to the line of scrimmage, but they ended up rushing only four and dropping seven defenders into coverage.
In a two-by-two alignment with a pair of receivers on either side, the Patriots attacked with four vertical routes against the Saints' Cover 2.
Brady went to slot receiver Julian Edelman (circled in yellow) down the seam, but with the safety lingering close to the middle of the field, it took a fast and accurate throw to make a completion.
Edelman went up for the ball and made the catch. The safety came crashing downhill like a heat-seeking missile, planting his shoulder into Edelman's back, but he held on and came down with the ball.
When asked what the biggest key to the drive was, Edelman said, "Just getting it started, you know. We started it off, played with urgency—give the ball to the referee so we don't kill out the time, just play out the situation, so we were able to do that. We put ourselves in the hole, but we were able to dig ourselves out against a good team."
Second throw: Short middle to Austin Collie for 15 yards
Patriots personnel: same
The Patriots went no-huddle and hurried to the line of scrimmage for the next play, with Brady calling the play as he hurried to the line. The offense quickly got set, and got the snap off 15 seconds after the previous play had ended.
The Saints had time to get set, but they went with a vanilla defensive play call, perhaps as a result of the no-huddle.
Slot receiver Austin Collie (circled in yellow), who just arrived in New England 10 days ago, ran a 10-yard dig over the middle, and came open just as running back Brandon Bolden leaked out of the backfield into the flat.
Brady had a much nicer pocket to step into than he did on the previous throw, and his receiver didn't have to endure nearly the hit Edelman took just seconds prior.
Still, the fact that Collie was the one making big plays so soon after he showed up in Foxborough comes as a surprise—especially given the relative success rate and time of acclimation for new wide receivers.
And Collie wasn't done yet.
Third throw: Screen to Aaron Dobson for six yards
Patriots personnel: same
The sequence on this play began at the tail end of the previous play. The Patriots once again hurried to the line, and Brady motioned to his receivers as if to say they were going to spike the ball to stop the clock.
As a result, the Patriots were able to get another key play off without the Saints being prepared. Both wide receiver Aaron Dobson (circled in yellow) and Edelman ran screen patterns, uncovered on the offense's right.
Brady quickly threw the ball to Dobson, the receiver closest to the sideline, but the ball didn't get Dobson very close to the sideline—he was still several yards in bounds. The Patriots can send a thank-you to cornerback Keenan Lewis; although he had what could have been the game-clinching interception just one football minute prior, he also helped the Patriots stop the clock by dragging Dobson out-of-bounds for the tackle.
Fourth throw: Incomplete deep middle to Edelman
Patriots personnel: same
The Patriots, once again, went with a two-by-two set and had all four receivers run vertical routes of some variation. With some extra time following the play out-of-bounds, the Saints were able to get creative with the play call and decided to bring a blitz.
This was the only time on the final drive in which the Saints tried to force the issue at all. As passive as they were on offense, to give the Patriots three opportunities in the final 3:29 to win the game, they were equally passive on the final drive, outside of this play.
Credit to the offensive line for picking up the blitz—running back Bolden had a key block on safety Malcolm Jenkins rushing up the gut.
That gave Brady enough time to allow Edelman to get open down the seam against linebacker David Hawthorne.
The receiver would have caught the pass if Brady had put it a little further out in front of him.
Although the incompletion delayed the inevitable, at the time, it was a big missed opportunity.
Fifth throw: Incomplete deep middle to Edelman
Patriots personnel: same
The Saints once again used a three-man rush with eight men in coverage, trying to keep everything in front of them.
I'll probably never fully understand why Rob Ryan put a linebacker in coverage on Edelman so frequently, even if it was zone coverage. They gave the Patriots two free shots over the middle to the one receiver who Brady has come to consistently this season.
It's no surprise that he once again looked to his most trusted target over the middle. For a second time, though, Brady didn't put enough on the ball—or, at least, didn't put it in exactly the right spot.
Edelman ran a crossing pattern over the deep middle of the field, in front of safety Kenny Vaccaro. However, with the ball thrown slightly behind Edelman, he had to stop and turn behind himself to make the catch, which made it all that much easier for Vaccaro to jar the ball loose.
Sixth throw: Short left to Collie for nine yards
Patriots personnel: 11 (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers)
This is the first time we saw the Patriots use any personnel grouping other than the 10 personnel. Edelman came off the field after the two big hits, with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui coming on in his place.
Collie ran a curl route from the right slot, and Brady release the ball before he'd even come out of his break. The receiver turned around, and the ball was waiting right there for him, headed straight at his face. All he had to do was put his hands up and make the grab.
Although Collie admitted he has much to learn about the Patriots playbook, he showed early signs of progress toward quickly getting on the same page with Brady—as mentioned before, no small feat.
"[Collie has] earned the confidence of everybody," Brady said, "so we had a situation where we put him on the field and see what he could do and see if he could help us win a game and he did. That was a great thing and that's what we need."
The play was not over when he caught the ball, though. The Patriots had to get to the line to kill the clock. Collie was tackled with 16 seconds remaining on the clock, and they still had to get the ball to the referee, get to the line of scrimmage, get set to avoid an illegal procedure penalty, and then spike the ball.
They were able to do all of that in a span of six seconds.
Final throw: Deep right to Kenbrell Thompkins for 17 yards, touchdown
Patriots personnel: 11, same as previous play
The Patriots killed the clock after the previous play, and with 10 seconds left in the game, they decided to send everyone on verticals into the end zone for a last-gasp heave.
The offensive line gave Brady plenty of time to make his read. He started off scanning the right side of the field, but came back across to his left to find Thompkins on the fade route in the back corner of the end zone.
"We had everybody going to the end zone, and [Thompkins] 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.
It wasn't a surprise to see Saints cornerback Jabari Greer on the wrong end of the touchdown pass; he was lit up by the Bears in Week 5, allowing eight completions on nine throws into his coverage for 128 yards and a touchdown (155.8 rating), and was targeted frequently again Sunday.
Greer had a chance to make a play on the ball, and came very close, with his fingertips nearly hitting the ball in flight, but he just barely mistimed his jump.
Thompkins high-pointed the ball for the high point of his young NFL career—an up-and-down start that might have shaken the confidence of some undrafted rookies.
"We just knew that it was going to come down to the last minute," Thompkins said. "Until that clock said all zeros on it, we were going to fight until the finish. And that's what we did, we just went out there and fought to the finish."
This was the 28th career fourth-quarter comeback for Brady, and he leads the league with two on the young 2013 season. The last time Brady had more than two fourth-quarter comebacks in one season was 2007. That's not to say this team will head to the Super Bowl, as it did that year, but only to point out how long it's been since Brady has been asked to come back in a close situation this frequently—he's already seen three fourth-quarter must-score situations this season.
This, though, is a bit different than most previous comebacks. This one may be more impressive simply because of who he was throwing to. Thompkins, Collie, Dobson and Edelman are talented players, but not the elite group Brady has had at his disposal in recent history.
Who knows how much longer Brady will play, but as long as he does, the Patriots will have a chance to win in almost any situation.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.