FOXBORO, Mass. -- Austin Collie has been a Patriots receiver for about a week and a half, but he sounded like a long-time New England veteran in the winning locker room, summing up what it's worth to be wearing the same color jersey as No. 12, especially in crunch time.
"We had the attitude out there that we're never down and out, and with him, anything is possible,'' said Collie, of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "Everybody knows how good he is. You can take anyone off the street and know that Tom Brady is going to take it to the end.''
Collie, the ex-Colt who's just off the street, has of course seen this story from both sides now. The Patriots believe there's always enough time left for Tom, and that you can never count him out, no matter how dire the situation appears.
But Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium seriously tested that theory. There's really no way the Patriots should have been able to beat the New Orleans Saints in such dramatic comeback fashion, on Brady's 17-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the back left corner of the end zone with five seconds left. But Brady and his team always keep playing no matter how daunting the odds, and sometimes the result is a win like this one: New England 30, New Orleans 27, in a game that left both teams 5-1 and in sole possession of first place in their respective divisions.
Improbable really doesn't quite get the job done when it comes to describing the Patriots' rally, which is why I think even the taciturn Bill Belichick dropped out of character in opening his postgame news conference.
"Sorry if you had to re-write some of those stories there at the end,'' Belichick quipped. "What a football game. I feel like that took about five years off my life.''
Imagine what it must have done to Sean Payton's. But the Saints' head coach has no one to blame for this one other than a New Orleans offense that twice failed to pick up the first down that would have put the game away in the final three minutes. Excluding a field goal attempt and a punt, the Saints ran six plays from the 2:46 mark of the fourth quarter on, and those snaps produced just one single yard.
New Orleans stopped the Patriots on downs when New England gambled and went for a 4th-and-6 from their own 24 with 2:50 remaining, and the Saints intercepted Brady at their 30 with 2:16 to play and the Patriots down to their last timeout.
No matter. New Orleans wound up leaving Brady 1:13 to work with at the New England 30, and it was five seconds too many. With no way to stop the clock other than an incompletion, the Patriots furiously drove 70 yards in 1:08. Brady completed five passes to four different receivers, with Thompkins somehow getting behind Saints cornerback Jabari Greer and out-jumping him for the game-winner. Two plays earlier, Collie had caught a do-or-die nine-yard pass on 4th-and-4 from the Saints' 26.
"This is football, and I've seen crazier things and I've been part of crazier things,'' said Collie, who played his first two NFL seasons with Peyton Manning as his quarterback in Indianapolis. "When you have two minutes left, it's never over. Two minutes is plenty of time.
"I've been familiar with this team, and we all look to No. 12 in certain situations like that. We look to Tom, and he's not shaking, so that kind of rubs off on all of us. I don't think any us of panicked. We always knew we were in it, and we could come back.''
Sounds good, but the reality is the Patriots were coming off one of their worst offensive showings in the entire 13-year Brady era, that 13-6 loss at Cincinnati in Week 5. New England had just one drive of more than 35 yards against the Bengals tough defense, and Brady's streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass ended at 52 games. So while Brady entered Sunday with 37 career game-winning drives following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie, No. 38 didn't exactly look likely against the Saints, who are vastly improved on defense this season under new coordinator Rob Ryan.
But Brady's team believes he'll find a way, and this time, the dominoes all fell correctly for the Patriots. Brady used everyone available to him on the receiving depth chart, getting Collie his first two catches as a Patriot, both of which came in the final 53 seconds (for 24 yards); finding Julian Edelman for 23 yards to jump-start the final desperation drive; and connecting with Aaron Dobson for a six-yard gain. Lastly was Thompkins, New England's most impressive rookie, coming down with the perfectly thrown ball that Brady put where only he could catch.
"We were saying on the sideline the whole time that we were going to get another chance,'' Thompkins said of the game's frantic final minutes. "And when we get that chance, we have to take full advantage of it. We just knew it was going to come down to the last minute.''
Thompkins might not have been targeted on the play if Brady's go-to receiver, the oft-injured Danny Amendola, hadn't been knocked from the game in the late third quarter with an apparent concussion. Or if tight end Rob Gronkowski had made his long-awaited return to the lineup on Sunday, as was first expected earlier in the week. But there was no Amendola or Gronkowski to throw to in the fourth quarter, so Brady made do with what he had on hand, as he has done so many times in his stellar career.
"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 with it and made a great catch,'' Brady said. "That's what football teams are all about: using 53 guys on the roster to try to move the ball down the field and get it into the end zone one way or another. Today it took us 59 minutes and 55 seconds. We needed all that time and we took all that time. Great way to finish.''
Not if you're Greer, the Saints cornerback who was victimized. Down 17-7 at the half, the Saints had fought back with a 10-point third quarter and 10 more in the fourth quarter, taking a 24-23 lead on a 34-yard Drew Brees touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenny Stills with 3:29 left. Despite not getting a single reception out of tight end Jimmy Graham, who was blanketed by Patriots lead cornerback Aqib Talib in the first half and then later left the game in the second half with a left ankle/leg injury, the Saints were in position to grind out the win and improve to 6-0 with one more defensive stop. But it never came.
"We fought everything to be in position to win, and to have one play change everything, that's tough, especially being that person [who gave up the play],'' Greer said. "It was very humbling. You never want to hurt your team, but also know that I made that play a lot of times in my career. I just have to make that play and not let them score.''
After Thompkins' touchdown, the look of anguish and disbelief that crossed Ryan's face was captured by FOX's TV cameras. His team had been Brady-ied. Sacking the Patriots' future Hall of Fame quarterback five times, and holding him to a good but far-from-great 25-of-43, 269-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception passing line had not been enough. Brady had done the damage that mattered in the end. The very end.
"I know you can't give Tom Brady and that offense three chances at a two-minute drill,'' said Brees, who threw for just 236 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception, completing 17-of-36. "Lord knows we had our chances at the end. For us, you sit there and rack your brain about, 'Man, we need to get that one first down.' We could have put ourselves in position to run out the clock, or at least get the clock down so far so that it would have been nearly impossible to come back.''
Nearly impossible. But it was not to be on this night. Not with Brady on the other side of the field, working the clock to New England's benefit, and finding just enough time to rescue the Patriots. New England really shouldn't have been in position to steal this victory, but it did, because it still has Brady playing the game's most pivotal position.
Collie, the newest Patriot, learned Sunday what every veteran Patriot already knows: With Brady, anything is possible.