Epic comeback capped by Tom Brady's 46th career fourth-quarter, game-winning drive

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With less than six minutes remaining and the Patriots' Super Bowl hopes hanging in the balance at the Ravens' 23-yard line, receiver Brandon LaFell lined up to the far left side and thought, 'This could be it.' Baltimore Ravens cornerback Rashaan Melvin was pressing him at the line of scrimmage, Tom Brady was in the shotgun, and it seemed like an eternity.

"He was preaching for so long, I thought he was going to change the play," LaFell recalled of Brady's verbiage at the line of scrimmage. "I'm saying, ‘No! It's man-to-man. Let me go to work.' He had faith in me. He threw a perfect ball."

Did he ever, with Brady arcing it over Melvin into the tight window as safety Darian Stewart sprinted to the sideline a bit too late, as LaFell cradled the pass with his left arm for a 35-31 lead and the eventual game-winning touchdown.

It marked the first time the Patriots led in the game, and once the defense held with a late Duron Harmon interception, it ensured Brady's 46th career game-winning drive from a fourth-quarter tie or deficit was capped off by his 46th career postseason touchdown pass, which broke the NFL record of 45 by Brady's boyhood idol, Joe Montana.

Brady's voice was clearly audible at the line of scrimmage before the fit-it-into-the-tight-window throw.

"Alabama!" he yelled. "33 [Will Hill] is the mike!"

But the ball still wasn't snapped at that point, with LaFell maintaining his patience as the lone receiver to the left side.

Only when LaFell heard "Blue, 80, hut!" did he explode into his route, with Brady dialing into him immediately. There was no need to look elsewhere.

"Jo Jo [LaFell's nickname] got a great release, made it easy on me and made a great catch," Brady said. "The guy looked like he had his right arm kind of arm-barring, and he caught it with his left and was able to get his right hand on it. It was a great play."

It was a great play capping off a great drive and perhaps the greatest playoff game Gillette Stadium -- opened in 2002, one year after the "Snow Bowl" playoff win over the Oakland Raiders -- has hosted.

Call it Brady Magic.

"He deserves it. Tom's a great clutch player with tremendous poise, vision [and] accuracy," coach Bill Belichick said. "He's done it with a lot of different receivers, a lot of different situations, against a lot of different defenses."

This particular situation came with 10:10 remaining in the game, with the Patriots trailing 31-28 and taking over at their own 26. Receiver Julian Edelman has been in these types of situations with Brady before, and this one was no different.

"Tom was just Tom. He's kind of cool, calm, collected, and it's ‘All right guys, let's go,'" Edelman said. "We didn't talk about anything but the play. If there's a reminder, he's always on top of that to help a guy out. You don't want to say you expect that, but it's Tom Brady. It's always nice to have that guy."

The Patriots opened the drive at their own 26 with Edelman and LaFell as receivers, Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui as tight ends and Shane Vereen at running back. That was a matchup they went to at various points in the game, electing to mostly throw as the Ravens matched that grouping in their base defense.

Sometimes in those situations, the first play can be the toughest to spark things, and LaFell got it going with a 7-yard grab, once again with Melvin in coverage.

"It was a hitch play," LaFell detailed. "We were just trying to get into second-and-short, stay in second-and-manageable and not try to get into third-and-long because they are real good on third-and-6 or plus."

Then came an 8-yarder to Edelman, which advanced the ball to the 41, as he took a hit over the middle from linebacker Daryl Smith.

"I think it was a juke route," he said. "We were able to execute it, and one of their linebackers [hit me]. They were playing physical out there."

It almost came to a crashing halt on the next play, when running back Shane Vereen caught a short pass to the right side and ran for a 9-yard gain before he was crunched by two Ravens defenders, with the football squirting free. Officials ruled it a fumble recovered by Baltimore, only to have it overturned when the replay showed Vereen's knee was down before the ball came loose.

Brady ran one of his patented quarterback sneaks for 2 yards on second-and-1 -- the team's only run in the second half, besides the final three kneel downs -- before a throwaway as he rolled out of the pocket to his right. That was followed by a 4-yard connection on the right side to tight end Rob Gronkowski.

That set up a critical third-and-6 from the Ravens' 44.

"They were showing a blitz," Brady said of the play on which he fired quickly to receiver Danny Amendola, whose second effort to the sticks along the left sideline produced the first down. "I knew that corner was going to be sitting there waiting for him, but I was trying to get it to him quick, where he could turn and make a move. He did -- made a great move and ended up making a big first down."

Edelman was among several Patriots players and coaches who couldn't say enough about Amendola's effort.

"He broke a tackle and had the awareness and knew the situation of where the sticks were," he said. "Unbelievable play."

"Great play there on the third down to fight for the yardage and get the first down," Belichick added.

From Amendola's view, everything unfolded as he expected, based on the pre-snap look.

"I knew the coverage -- there would only be one or two guys that were there, and you just try to break the tackle," he said. "It was the same play we scored on down in the corner. I just wanted to break a tackle and go."

That was followed by a 9-yard pass to tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and a 6-yarder to Edelman ("I think it was another juke route").

All that was left was for Brady to find LaFell, the five-year veteran receiver waiting until the last moment to flash his hands, a la Randy Moss.

"Just the way he was playing me all game, I saw there was no safety help. I knew he was in trouble," LaFell said. "Tom threw a perfect ball, and nobody was going to be able to cover it. He was grabbing my hand, so I didn't want to shoot my hands too early and let him play through my hands. I was going to shoot my hands late, but he [was] still grabbing me.

"It dropped smoothly in my lap. It was like the perfect ball, the biggest ball I've ever seen, tight [window]. The only thing I had to do was stick my arm out."

As in many times before, it was a case of Brady rising up in the critical situation. Although much of the talk leading into the game was about how unflappable Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was, Brady has a long track record in that area as well.

"It felt like a long day in practice: Everybody is tired, everybody is complaining, and you look at Tom, and he's just calm," LaFell said. "He's putting us in the right plays, and he's just going out there spreading the ball around and making plays for us. When you look that calm, and he's just smooth out there, it calms you down and gives you confidence to make plays."

Leave it to Belichick to succinctly sum up the winning drive and Brady's mastery in the moment.

"I think that speaks to his greatness and his ability to perform consistently under pressure," he said. "No quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady."