— Tom Brady, in an early-morning email, some 11 hours after the unlikely 30-27 New England win over previously unbeaten New Orleans.
The latest chapter of the Book of Brady starts with a strange character, one who didn’t play or coach Sunday and was getting roasted for sitting the game out: Rob Gronkowski.
We all thought the Gronk story was over when the pregame shows finished filleting the man and his strange habit of practicing like an Olympian decathlete during the week and then sitting on the couch to watch the game, not play in it. But it turns out he had a very big role in this game, after all. Troy Aikman, early in the second quarter of the Saints-Patriots game on FOX, gave us a pretty big clue with the blanket coverage of Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib shutting out New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham to that point.
“You mentioned Rob Gronkowski and his situation,’’ Aikman said to partner Thom Brennaman, referring to Gronk’s being inactive for the sixth straight week with his mystery forearm injury. “One of the, I guess, positives that comes with that is he ran scout team all week. So the Patriots couldn’t have gotten a better look for having to face Jimmy Graham this week than what Rob Gronkowski showed them … When Bill Belichick decides he’s going to take [an opponent] out of the game, he does it as well as anybody. The key coming into this game for New England was trying to slow down and eliminate Jimmy Graham. That has happened.’’
As if on cue, the Saints snapped the ball two seconds later, with 12:44 left in the second quarter, and Graham ran a 10-yard cross on 3rd-and-10 from the Saints’ 23. Drew Brees fired it to him, with Talib in tight coverage. Graham had the ball in his hands, and Talib hammered it out. Incomplete.
I sensed Aikman was onto something, brilliant football mind that I am.
Brady confirmed it in his email.
“All of us have seen how badly Rob wants to help us win,’’ Brady wrote. “He has definitely given all he could in practice, especially on the scout teams to replicate the other teams’ best receiver. Though they may seem insignificant during the week, they are a huge reason why teams win.’’
What does this have to do with the scintillating end of game for Brady, the one that left Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan looking like his dog just died? Simple: In his previous four games, Graham rubbed out opponents with games of 179, 134, 100 and 135 yards (and five touchdowns). With Talib in his shirt, Graham was targeted six times by Drew Brees, with zero receptions. When you go from one guy accounting for 137 yards a game to zero, that’s going to tend to keep an offense down … and in this era of garish passer ratings and yardage numbers, Drew Brees going three-and-out on seven series in a game is pretty amazing.
“The good teams get better every week,’’ said Brady. “The mental toughness, the work ethic and discipline of all 53 guys on the roster matter.”
That leads us to the end of the game meaning something.
Tom Brady’s targets on New England’s 13 plays in the final 3:29:
(The ball was spiked by Brady once.)
Check out that cast. He met Dobson and Thompkins right after the draft. He met Collie two weeks ago. Bolden and Hoomanuwanui are bit pieces, who, with the right players healthy, wouldn’t have been playing this late in a game.
With 3:29 to play, New Orleans took a 24-23 lead, and the Patriots took the ball over. Hoomanawanui caught a four-yard one-hopper on first down (the officials missed the ball hitting the ground before the catch). Second-down karma: Bolden dropped what would have been a first-down conversion, because he ran before he caught it. And on fourth down, Dobson dropped another conversion throw. Belichick clearly figured—reminiscent of his gambit against the Colts in his own territory in 2009, the difference being here he trailed—his chances to make a first down here were better than his defense’s chances to hold the Saints without points. And if the Patriots held the Saints to a field goal, it was still a one-score game.
The Patriots held New Orleans to a field goal, all right. Saints, 27-23. But on the first play with the ball, Brady went for a big chunk downfield, to Edelman up the seam. Beneath him, Dobson was running an incut. It appeared that Brady figured Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis would shadow Dobson underneath when Dobson broke under Edelman. But Lewis stuck with Edelman and intercepted the ball.
“I saw Julian running through the safety,’’ Brady said, “and made a bad read. My worst play of the night.”
With 2:16 left now, the Patriots had one timeout plus the two-minute warning to stop the clock. One Saints conversion and New England was doomed. But they couldn’t convert. So Brady took over at the Pats’ 30.
How often does a quarterback have a chance three times in the last 3:30 to drive his team to victory? Now Brady was taking his third shot, 70 yards away, with no timeouts, and 73 seconds left. Collie had played one snap in this, his first game as a Patriot. But now he’d be on for the duration. The Patriots put their fastest four receivers on the field, all knowing that time was critical. When they caught a ball in-bounds, they knew to run it to the umpire or head linesman so the spot could happen quickly. Thompkins lined up wide left and Collie in the left slot. Edelman was wide right, and Dobson in the slot. All ran vertical routes, and Brady hit Edelman and Collie on the first two throws for 38 yards, then Dobson for six. After two incompletions, it was 4th-and-4, with 16 seconds left.
Now, Collie had practiced with the team six times. He was in the game now because Danny Amendola was hurt again. “We’ve worked after practice on some things this past week so that he could be in position to help our team win,’’ Brady wrote. “He runs great routes and I liked him on the option route he was running on that particular coverage.”
On the biggest play of the game to this point (the seventh play of Collie’s Patriot career), Brady saw he had the most advantageous matchup—against Malcolm Jenkins, and the Patriots thought the quick Collie could beat the bigger but not-as-quick safety on a little curl option route off the line. Brady’s pass was spot on, Collie gained nine, and he ran the ball in a hurry to the umpire, who placed it down. Brady spiked it. Ten seconds left.
That’s pretty good: A fourth-down conversion, receiver down, receiver pops up, runs the ball to the official, who spots it, the players get set, and Brady spikes it. All in six seconds.
With 10 seconds left at the 17, Brady knew he’d have two shots at the end zone, but he couldn’t waste any time. Same four-wide formation: Thompkins, Collie, Dobson, Edelman. Brady didn’t hide his intention. Thompkins, man to man with veteran Jabari Greer, got half a step on the defender, and Brady threw it a second after getting the snap. Perfect throw. The Patriots like the 6-1 Thompkins because he can be physical in going up to get the ball. He didn’t need to be physical here, but he leaped above Greer and snatched it, getting his feet down cleanly seven yards deep in the corner of the end zone.
“You can’t give Tom Brady three chances at a two-minute drill,’’ said Brees.
Even when his team is as patchwork as he’s played with in New England. In many ways, that makes this game, and this season, all the more rewarding for Brady. Peyton Manning has Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker; Brady has Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. Manning has Julius Thomas. Brady has Michael Hoomanawanui. Manning’s slot guy is Brady’s beloved slot guy, Wes Welker. Brady’s? Maybe Danny Amendola. Or Julian Edelman. Or Austin Collie.
What we love about sports is when we can’t quantify the outcome of a game. This game in Foxboro, even with the Saints on the road, should have belonged to the Saints. But New England’s defense is improving, and you always have a chance with Brady. And this morning, he took a minute to soak it in—before moving on to the next one. Just a minute.
“We have faced some pretty challenging circumstances these past few months,’’ Brady wrote. “But no one has listened to the BS outside our football building. Guys have worked hard and have been ready when their number has been called.
“We have been grinding it out to get to 5-1. I would love to grind another one out to get to 6-1.”
Patriots at Jets, Sunday at 1. The next chapter. It can’t be as good as the last chapter. Can it?