FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots players involved in a dramatic eight-play, game-winning touchdown drive brought it back to life in a jubilant postgame locker room.
The situation had been dire -- 1:13 remaining, trailing 27-23, the ball on their 30-yard line, no timeouts -- which made reliving the improbable finish that much sweeter.
“Before we went out, everyone was just focused, trying to prepare for the situation. We work on that situation on Thursdays a bunch, Coach [Bill Belichick] makes it really hard on us, so we’re just focused at that point,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “We were trying to get back from what we had dug ourselves into it. We just wanted to go out there and start it off right.”
They did so with Edelman’s 23-yard catch over the middle on a laser from quarterback Tom Brady, the team employing a four-receiver package (Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Austin Collie) to get more speed on the field.
“It was Tampa 2 [defense], a middle read, and Tommy put it on the line and I went up and got it,” Edelman said of the drive-starting play, in which he had lined up in the right slot and got behind linebacker David Hawthorne and found the opening in front of safety Rafael Bush. “You can’t think of anything else at that point. You just have to give the ball to the ref and get back to the next play.”
Everyone was on the same page.
"I’m thinking, 'We have to get back to the ball and make another play. There is still a lot of field to cover, probably less than a minute now,'" Dobson said.
Indeed, the Patriots didn’t snap the ball again until there were 53 seconds remaining, Brady connecting on a 15-yard pass over the middle to Collie, who had bumped up the depth chart after Danny Amendola had previously left the game with a head injury. Collie had played just one snap prior to the final drive.
“It was an in-route, I saw the middle of the field vacant, and kind of knew I was a viable option,” Collie said of the play in which he lined up in the left slot. “The ball came my way, I caught it, got down as quick as I could, then gave the ball to the ref.”
Collie’s quick work was imperative as the Patriots were back at the line of scrimmage for their next play with 39 seconds remaining.
Considering Sunday was Collie’s 11th day as a Patriot, his ability to come through in that critical situation, without the benefit of a huddle, was not overlooked by Belichick. The coach praised Collie, telling reporters he has spent more than two hours daily working overtime with position coach Chad O’Shea. It showed on the final march.
"That whole drive was me making sure I’m dialed in, making sure I was where I needed to be, and reminding myself 'expect the ball to be coming to you on this play,'" Collie said.
The ball now at the Saints 32, Brady then connected with Dobson on a 6-yard pass to the right side.
“Just an off-the-ball pass,” Dobson explained. “The DB [Keenan Lewis] on me was way off and [Brady] kind of looked at me and we were on the same page. I knew I had to get out of bounds and [Lewis] helped me get out.”
That stopped the clock with 35 seconds remaining, setting up back-to-back incompletions over the deep middle to Edelman from the Saints 26.
“I wish I could have had the second one back, I got banged at the end. You have to make that catch,” said Edelman, who was banged up on the play and left the game as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui came on in his place.
Then, once again, Collie rose up in the critical situation: fourth-and-4, with 24 seconds remaining.
“Got an out-route and you just make sure you get separation and make sure you catch the ball when it comes to you,” he said of the 9-yard catch in which he shook safety Malcolm Jenkins with authority. “It was a big down.”
Because Collie couldn’t get out of bounds, players hustled back to the line for a spike to stop the clock, setting up the final touchdown, Brady firing a 17-yard strike to Thompkins in the back left-hand corner of the end zone. Thompkins rose up to make the catch, keeping his feet in bounds with five seconds remaining.
“We had everybody going in the end zone and he kind of snuck into the corner and I put it up there for him,” Brady said. “He came down and made a great catch.”
“It was just a deep ball, zone coverage, the DB [Jabari Greer] ended up letting me get behind him and I just went up there and made a play,” said Thompkins, who pumped his right fist in the air repeatedly in celebration.
“Just awesome. Perfect textbook catch, the timing, getting his feet in,” Hoomanawanui added. “He just made an unreal play but it’s nothing new to us. We see that kind of stuff every day from him. It was just awesome to see it in that situation at the end of the game, and let the fans see it.”
Parts of Gillette Stadium had actually emptied out by that point, those who left missing one of the most dramatic finishes in recent Patriots memory.
Those who stayed had seen this type of Brady magic before. The difference, of course, was that the supporting cast was almost entirely new.
“That’s a very memorable moment for me, probably one of the best football games I’ve played in,” said Dobson, the second-round pick from Marshall. “Going through that as a rookie, a last drive type of thing, and we all had a catch. I just felt we all contributed.”