Patriots expected happy ending

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Nobody said a word because, honestly, no one needed to.

Entering Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had engineered 31 fourth-quarter game-winning drives during his career, and the 11 people in New England's huddle knew what was about to happen when the hosts took over with 2:31 remaining and a three-point deficit to overcome.

Maybe the 11 on the other side of the field knew as well.

Brady completed eight passes for 78 yards and picked up the other two with his feet as part of a textbook 10-play touchdown drive that lifted New England to a 20-16 triumph at Gillette Stadium.

Offensive lineman Brian Waters is new to the party. He spent the past 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, so he's only seen those late-game treks -- like, say, the Super Bowl XXXVI march in New Orleans -- on film. But even he knew how things were about to play out.

In fact, the Patriots weren't even thinking three points to tie. It was seven for the win.

"When you've got [No.] 12 back there, you can feel a little more confident," Waters said. "And when you have the type of skill position players we've got -- guys who can make plays at any point on the field -- us linemen know it's just about trying to do the best we can for as long as we can. We're just locked in."

So were Brady and his receivers.

Take Aaron Hernandez, who had plenty of reasons to be second-guessing himself. One week ago, he dropped a potential touchdown pass on a ball that instead became Brady's first career red-zone interception at Gillette Stadium. On Sunday, he produced the first offensive fumble for New England this season. But when it mattered most, Hernandez atoned by bookending the drive with catches, including a 16-yard grab to the light the fuse.

Working out of the no-huddle, Brady zipped an 11-yard completion to the other second-year tight end, Rob Gronkowski, who got out of bounds before the two-minute warning, affording another play before the stoppage. With it, Wes Welker, who had been blanketed for much of the day, hauled in a 5-yard pass.

The ball was rolling.

Welker caught another pass for 10 yards on the other side of the warning. Danny Woodhead, who sat out last week's game and has been limited by an ankle injury this past week, looked just fine on a 9-yard grab.

Brady's only miscue: An incomplete pass toward Welker with 1:22 to go. Then, facing a crucial third-and-1 at the Dallas 29, Brady called his own number and gained 2 yards and a new set of downs. Woodhead (13 yards) and Welker (6) each got another grab before Brady sent a laser to Hernandez for an 8-yard touchdown with 22 seconds to go.

"We wanted to win the game," Waters said. "[A field goal] that's sort of the consolation prize. We wanted to win. No matter where we are on the football field -- and that's one thing I've learned in my short time since I've been here -- we've been in a lot of different long-field situations, but we still come out with seven points."

For the Patriots, the key was simply having the opportunity to win the game. Players are still smarting from the only blemish on this year's schedule, when Buffalo was able to run out the clock before kicking the winning field goal in Week 3.

Members of the New England offense swore that, if they had had the opportunity, they would have won that game. And despite a frustrating second half Sunday that included the season's first fumble, one of Brady's two interceptions, a fourth-quarter three-and-out and -- most importantly -- no points, there wasn't a single member of the Patriots who thought the team would come away empty on that final drive.

"When you have a quarterback like Tom, anything can happen as long as there's time on the clock," said Hernandez.

What makes the drive really shine is the little details, how even in the most frenzied of situations, the Patriots know exactly what they're trying to do. Right before Hernandez's touchdown grab, the Patriots called a timeout that was more about strategy than clock management.

"I think [coach Bill Belichick] was concerned with [offensive lineman] Matt [Light] because he knew he was hurting," Brady said. "He wanted to make sure that we had [Dallas linebacker] DeMarcus Ware under control. We helped him out with the protection to give us a little more time and Logan helped out on that too. It was good. As usual, Coach was right."

Indeed, Ware came speeding as if fired from a cannon off the left side. Light steered him as wide as he could and Mankins rushed to prevent Ware -- who already had two sacks to his credit -- from getting to Brady's blind side. And Brady stepped up into the pocket and delivered a dart to Hernandez.

"They had some double coverages on the other guys," Brady said, explaining the final stages of his surgical procedure. "There was a combination coverage on Wes and Deion [Branch], and then there was a combination coverage on that other side. I was reading Gronk, they both took Gronk and then Aaron wound up being one-on-one. He had the guy outside leveraged on the in-breaking route. He made it, ran a good route and made a great catch."

Yes, maybe we'd have only been surprised if the Patriots didn't score on that drive. Then that would have been something to talk about.

"[Brady] really didn't need to say anything," Gronkowski said. "Everyone just knew that was our last shot. We either get it done or we don't. We got it done."

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.