On Oct. 6, the Patriots recorded their worst loss of the season, falling to the Cincinnati Bengals 13-6. The Bengals were considered good before this season began and will likely be deemed good when it ends, but on that Sunday, they were not good. They did not play well, and they did not win the game as much as not lose it. The Patriots mustered just two field goals, though, and were defeated.
That same day, the Broncos were in the middle of one of Peyton Manning’s early-season clinics. They beat the Dallas Cowboys 51-48, and Manning completed 33 of 42 passes for 414 yards and four touchdowns.
Denver was a Super Bowl contender. New England, despite its 4-0 start and improvement in bringing its young receivers into the fold, looked anything but. It was worth wondering whether the Patriots, already shaky, would get demolished against a real NFL team, with the Saints the next game up.
Against New Orleans, the Patriots once again started shaky. They didn’t look great, but their defense — the strength of the early season — kept the game in reach as Aqib Talib blanketed Jimmy Graham. The Patriots at least weren’t torched, but with 1:13 remaining, New England’s disappointing day was ready to end with a 27-23 loss.
Then, in one drive, the Patriots changed the tenor of their season. The team that had been underwhelming so far, winning only gimmes, looked unstoppable. New England played New Orleans, for 73 seconds, like two contenders going at it, with the Patriots’ untapped talent and elusive execution finally clicking for eight final plays. The Saints had found a way to get the best out of the Patriots, and the Patriots followed through.
It wasn’t all roses after that, of course. New England has been, as Tom Brady noted Wednesday, inconsistent all season. But in a season where the team learned to graft together its new offense and play top-tier defense only to see those efforts fall short as Brady and others didn’t always execute, the Saints game was a reminder that these Patriots could still be the Patriots. Dominant performances and game-winning drives aren’t just for yesteryear — Brady and the Patriots can still produce them now.
Few would have thought coming into this year that Brady’s game would be the part to worry about, but he has struggled at points this season. His completion percentage, while inching upward, is just 58.7 percent right now — entire points below his career low, and quite far beneath his recent seasons. Beyond the stats, Brady just hasn’t looked sharp at times this season, and his inability to continue drives on third down or make plays in pivotal moments made Brady the reason the team wasn’t succeeding at several points this year.
That’s why the Saints drive was so good for this Patriots team. Not only did it show that New England as a whole can win those types of games, but it also got Brady back on the horse.
While Brady hasn’t been perfect since, his performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers (23 for 33, 432 yards, four touchdowns) shows how devastating he can be (especially with Rob Gronkowski back). This Brady is the kind that has people salivating and comparing him to Manning in the debate of best-ever, while the early-season Brady is ample evidence for every cry of “overrated.”
The catch in Brady’s comeback this year, then, has not been whether he can be the Brady of former years again, but rather whether he can be it consistently. On Monday night, Brady gave a decisive affirmative to that question, not only posting his second straight strong game but also putting up perhaps a better performance on the biggest stage so far this season.
The Carolina Panthers are a much better team, especially defensively, than the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are lucky to have more than two wins on the season, and they were fortunate to play the Patriots as close as they did. Carolina, on the other hand, gave Brady one of his biggest tests of the season, and he picked them apart.
The Monday night game was unique in how few possessions it featured, meaning both teams had to make the most of the few plays they had. Cam Newton certainly did the best with his opportunities, but Brady was quietly dominant as well. Before the final drive, Brady threw just four incompletions. From a player with a sub-60 percent completion mark this season, that’s pretty good, but completing 25 of 29 passes (86.2 percent) is incredible for anyone, even someone with a 63.4 percent career completion rate. Brady was doing his usual short connections and check downs, but he also had some monster passes throughout the game. He wasn’t missing guys that were open. Above all, he was in control of the offense.
That efficiency was what kept the Patriots in the game even when New England failed to execute at other points. Settling for a field goal in the fourth quarter would come back to haunt the Patriots. A few bad penalties and missed tackles could have changed the game. But Brady and the offense needed to put up a stellar effort to stay in it, and they did — to the point that they nearly pulled off another miracle win. (What Brady did on that final drive was ridiculous in itself.)
Brady ended the night with 29-for-40 passing, with seven of those incompletions on the final drive. He threw for 296 yards and one touchdown, decent enough stats in a game where the stats couldn’t tell the story.
But Brady’s night — and his competitive fire on the national stage, where he was as big as his team needed to be — was the best outcome of the evening.
A few weeks ago, a future date with the Broncos would have had any Patriots observer terrified. The Broncos are good — really good — and Manning is doing things with that offense that may never be seen again. Teams hoping to stick with Denver can’t mess around, and they certainly can’t fail to execute. With the Patriots secondary depleted, the only chance for New England winning is a shootout.
Good thing the gunslinger is back.