NEW ORLEANS -- New England 30, New Orleans 27.
The final score of Sunday's instant classic indicates there was a clear-cut winner and loser on the 13th of October, 2013, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. But did the Patriots win it or did the Saints lose it?
This is not a trick question.
Did Bill Belichick's Patriots win the game or did Sean Payton's Saints lose it?
The obvious answer is New England won the game on Tom Brady's 17-yard touchdown pass in the twilight to wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins in the back left corner of the end zone with five seconds remaining.
Game over, end of story, right?
I contend the Saints lost the game because of things they didn't do in situational football (clock management, play selection, etc.) and not because of things the Patriots and Tom Terrific did do.
With 2:33 remaining and the Saints leading 24-23, they faced a third-and-7 at the New England 21. The Patriots had just used their second timeout and were reeling against the ropes. A first down essentially would seal the deal. A field goal would extend the Saints' lead to four points. If nothing else, the Saints wanted to take the game clock down to the two-minute warning and make the Patriots use their final timeout.
Instead of running the ball and killing precious seconds, Saints quarterback Drew Brees tried to hit wide receiver Marques Colston down the left sideline and the pass was batted down by cornerback Alfonso Dennard, stopping the clock with 2:29 remaining. That pass play seemed better suited to run on first down off play action.
Garrett Hartley came on and kicked a 42-yard FG, extending the Saints lead to 27-23 with 2:24 remaining, plenty of time for Brady to engineer his 39th game-winning drive.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Saints had another opportunity to close out the game following an interception by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis at the New Orleans 30. But the Saints went three and out -- the last play coming on a naked bootleg by Brees resulting in a 5-yard loss -- and were forced to punt.
With no timeouts remaining, the Patriots took over at their 30 with 1:13 remaining following a 42-yard punt by Thomas Morstead.
“I’m thinking that this is the third chance we’re giving them,'' Brees said Monday when asked his thoughts as Brady came back on the field. "I know what my mindset would be at that point: there’s nothing that’s going to stop us. While I had the utmost confidence in our defense, I just know the player, I know the mindset. That’s on us as an offense; we can’t let them get back on the field.
“We've got to be able to close the game out.''
-- Against a 3-man rush, Brady opened the drive with back-to-back completions of 23 and 15 yards to Julian Edelman and Austin Collie down to the Saints' 32. With the clock running, Brady quickly moved under center and gave the appearance that he planned to spike the ball. But he reared up and hit wide receiver Aaron Dobson along the right sideline in front of the Saints bench. Lewis engaged Dobson in the field of play and inexplicably flung the receiver out of bounds at the Saints 26 to stop the clock with 35 seconds remaining.
If Lewis had tackled Dobson in bounds, the Patriots would have lost valuable seconds. Additionally, Brady would have been forced to spike the ball and waste a down.
"That was the goal (to keep Dobson in bounds),'' Lewis said Monday. "He's a big wide receiver; he made a good play. I tried. He was already almost standing tip-toe out of bounds. I'll grow from this and get better.''
After consecutive incompletions targeted for Edelman, Brady kept the Patriots' hopes alive with a 9-yard completion to Collie on fourth-and-4 from the Saints 26.
On first down from the Saints 17, Brady spiked the ball to kill the clock with 11 seconds left. On second down. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan sent four rushers after Brady in shotgun formation, including Junior Galette, who appeared to get hogtied around the neck by beaten New England left tackle Nate Solder.
With four receivers heading toward the end zone, Brady only had eyes for Thompkins, who had slipped behind cornerback Jabari Greer and easily distanced himself from slow arriving safety Rafael Bush. Brady delivered the ball high and tight to where only Thompkins could catch it and come down with both feet in bounds.
Ryan's pained facial expression on the sideline (it would look good on a Halloween pumpkin) said it all.
So you tell me: Did the Patriots win this game or did the Saints lose it?
The difference in the two is palpable.
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