FOXBOROUGH – If the national football public hates the Patriots, obviously the football gods don’t.
Somewhere up yonder, there is some metaphysical being who is still angry over the penalty flag being picked up in Carolina. This is now three weeks in a row that the Patriots have had to pull off incredible rallies to win. This latest one, on Sunday at Gillette Stadium against the Cleveland Browns, was the wackiest of all. A recovered onside kick and a questionable pass interference call in the end zone negated a strong effort by the Browns, and the Patriots escaped with a 27-26 win in a game Cleveland clearly deserved to win.
The Browns hadn’t won in Foxborough since 1992, and the Patriots hadn’t recovered an onside kick since a New Year’s Day playoff game in 1995. In both cases, Bill Belichick was the Browns head coach. One streak continued, the other ended in what has to go down as one of the most unbelievable game endings for the Patriots in recent memory. Trailing 26-14 with 2:35 left in the game, the Patriots were able to score 13 points in 30 seconds and then hold their collective breaths as a last second 58-yard field goal attempt by former Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff fell tantalizingly short.
The catalyst for the Patriot comeback was Shane Vereen, who had an amazing 12 catches for 153 yards, almost all of it coming in the second half. Tom Brady hit Vereen for six yards, then hit Julian Edelman for two passes for 42 yards as the two-minute warning hit. Three passes to Vereen for 23 yards helped put the Patriots at the two-yard line with 1:10 left. A one-yard run by Vereen forced Belichick to use his final timeout. On the next play, Edelman caught a pass at the back of the end zone to make it 26-21 Cleveland. On the play, Jordan Poyer was flagged for a late hit on Edelman, making the ensuing kickoff from the 50 instead of the 35, and that would prove critical.
Stephen Gostkowski dribbled the kickoff right up the middle. As the ball hit the 40, the required ten yards, the players from both sides ran into each other and Kyle Arrington managed to fall on the loose ball. The play was reviewed, and it was possible that the ball accidentally clanged off of Gostkowski before the ball went ten yards. A close look at replay showed that that was not the case, and the Patriots had the ball at the Cleveland 40. Danny Amendola caught a ten-yard pass on a crossing pattern to get the ball to the 30.
The next play may be perceived by the rest of the league as “payback for the Carolina game”, where the pass interference call on Rob Gronkowski by Luke Kuechly was waved off, ending the game. Josh Boyce ran a simple go route towards the end zone. Leon McFadden, the defender, seemed to contact Boyce but clearly did not impede Boyce in trying to catch the overthrown ball. However, McFadden was flagged for interference in the end zone and the Patriots had the ball at the one-yard line with 35 seconds left. Cleveland used its final timeout to try and set their defense.
With Cleveland out of timeouts and the Patriot defense being carved up by Jason Campbell, the Patriots might have been advised to run one play, run some clock, then take three shots at the end zone. But on first down, Brady rolled right and found Amendola for the touchdown which gave the Patriots the lead. Belichick went for the two point conversion, but Vereen was stopped on a running play. Cleveland had 30 seconds and no timeouts to try and respond.
30 seconds was plenty of time for Campbell (391 yards passing) to get the Browns in position for a game-winning field goal. Starting at the 20, Gary Barnidge caught a nine-yard pass, then Jordan Cameron caught an 18-yard pass, and both receivers managed to get out of bounds on the left sideline to save time. After an incompletion, Campbell found Cameron for 13 yards but over the middle. Campbell managed to spike the ball with one second left, but the Browns were at the Patriot 40.
Cundiff, who could not hit a 33-yard field goal two years ago in the AFC Championship Game, tried as 58-yard field goal as time expired. The ball was not yanked left as the kick that sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI was. It was straight as an arrow, but several feet short. The fans who stuck around at the end exploded in celebration.
The victory came at a high price for the Patriots. Gronkowski was hit low on a 21-yard third quarter pass by T.J. Ward and had to be carted off. Gronkowski was scheduled to have an MRI on Monday, but reports say that he has a torn ACL and could be looking at sitting out the rest of the season. Defenders have been trained to not hit high and avoid concussions, fines and suspensions. But low hits are dangerous too, and Gronkowski was sent spinning in the air after Ward’s hit.
Brady finished with 32 of 52 passing for 418 yards and two touchdowns, and one interception for a 91.7 passer rating. Vereen was the star of the game, but Edelman chipped in with 64 yards on six catches and the Patriots as a team averaged 4.1 rushing yards per carry. Brady was sacked four times, and the Browns played a very aggressive and effective defense for most of the game until Brady was able to find a rhythm with Vereen.
A bigger concern is the defense. Campbell finished with 391 yards passing. Cameron and Josh Gordon had 272 of those yards between them, with Gordon hauling in an 80-yard slant pass for a touchdown, leaving Aqib Talib in his wake. Gordon is on an historic receiving run, breaking records for receiving yards in consecutive games. But take away that one long bomb, and Talib did a fairly good job in taking away this sudden new phenom. Cameron was more of a problem, being covered largely by Donte Hightower and Jamie Collins. Cameron led the Browns with nine catches and proved more of a problem than Gordon.
The Patriots missed out on a chance to clinch a playoff berth or a division title as both Miami and Baltimore won. A warning salvo came from another direction, as Cincinnati took over the three seed with Indianapolis losing. The Patriots need to stay ahead of the Bengals as they hold a tiebreaker over the Patriots because of head to head. The Patriots can clinch the division next week with a win at Miami, but that will not be easy game on the road.
The Patriots would be best served to get off to better starts and to figure out how to patch up the holes in the defense. All teams deal with injuries, but when a journeyman quarterback like Campbell almost throws for 400 yards, something has to change.
Then again, if this is how the Patriots plan on winning games, hang on for the ride.