By Gregory Hunt
In their most memorable victory in recent memory, the New England Patriots capped a 70-yard drive with a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins with five seconds remaining in the game to pull out a 30-27 win over the previously undefeated New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium Sunday. In spite of their offensive struggles this season, the Patriots remain in first place in the AFC East with a 5-1 record.
Offense Grade: B+
Credit must be given to the Patriots offense for bouncing back so effectively after a pathetic performance in a 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals the previous week. Although there were still some missed connections in the passing game, most notably on back-to-back drops by Brandon Bolden and Aaron Dobson late in the fourth quarter that seemed to put the game out of reach at the time, Brady seemed to be more in sync with his receivers than at any other point so far this season.
To be fair, Brady appeared inaccurate at times, particularly when he overthrew a wide open Danny Amendola on a third quarter deep pass that should have gone for a touchdown. He also threw a fourth-quarter interception that was intended for a double-teamed Julian Edelman, but he was 5-of-8 on the winning drive, and one of those incompletions was a spike to stop the clock.
Even though tight end Rob Gronkowski continues to be sidelined with injury troubles, the position was brought back into the Patriots offense thanks to Michael Hoomanawanui, who caught four passes for 57 yards. Newly acquired receiver Austin Collie made his Patriots debut, catching two key passes on the game-winning drive. And, of course, Thompkins came through with the winning touchdown catch, making him Brady’s favorite receiver for the moment.
The Patriots rushing game also looked good, as Stevan Ridley ran for 96 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns. The Patriots became the first team all season to score more than 18 points on the aggressive, physical New Orleans defense.
Defense Grade: A
Perhaps the biggest key to the game was the New England defense holding all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham to zero catches. Until leaving the game in the game in the third quarter with a hip injury, New England cornerback Aqib Talib was a virtual blanket on Graham, forcing New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to find other targets.
The defense also got a key stop after New England turned the ball over on downs in the fourth quarter on the Patriots 24-yard line. The Saints led 24-23 at the time with 2:46 remaining in the game, but three plays later New Orleans was settling for a field goal. On third down, a would-be winning Saints touchdown was knocked out the hands of Marques Colston by New England’s Alfonzo Dennard. Earlier in the fourth quarter Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington caught New England’s lone interception, so it was a solid, all-around game for the defensive secondary.
Special Teams Grade: C
If there was one aspect of the game where the Patriots struggled, it was on special teams. While returning a punt in the first quarter, just as he was about to be tackled, Edelman inexplicably attempted a lengthy lateral to Talib. The ball fell far short of its target and New England was fortunate to recover the fumble.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski had an up-and-down game. He made all three of his field goal attempts, including a 54-yarder in the third quarter, but only four of his seven kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, and one of them didn’t even reach the end zone even though it wasn’t particularly windy during the game.
Punter Ryan Allen punted only four times, but was successful in flipping the field every time, averaging 52.5 yards per punt.
Coaching Grade: B
The Patriots coaching staff made one critical mistake that nearly cost New England the game when it elected to go for a first down on a fourth-and-six from the New England 24-yard line with 2:50 remaining in the game. At the time, New England had two time outs with the two-minute warning also coming up, so it seemed as if the Patriots could punt the ball away and still potentially get the ball back with a fair amount of time remaining. New England failed to make the first down, but as it turned out, the Patriots got the ball back two more times and they cashed in on the second opportunity.
Knowing that the New Orleans defense likes to blitz frequently, New England mitigated the blitz with a lot of screen passes early on, and that helped the Patriots offense get into a solid rhythm. On defense, New England played as many as six defensive backs at a time, and they successfully defended many of the short routes that Brees likes to throw to his tight ends and running backs.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.