The New England Patriots will host the New Orleans Saints this Sunday. We can only hope this game is as entertaining as the Saints? last visit to Gillette Stadium.
The 2013 meeting between New England and New Orleans — perhaps best remembered as the “Unicorns, Show Ponies, Where’s the Beef” game — was an underappreciated classic, featuring two of the game’s greatest quarterbacks, dueling fourth-quarter comebacks, a last-second touchdown, a legendary radio call and one of the best two-minute drills of Tom Brady’s illustrious Patriots tenure.
When we assembled our Top 10 Patriots Games of the Decade last December, this one — final score: Patriots 30, Saints 27 — checked in at No. 8. The only non-playoff game to rank higher was the Pats-Denver Broncos showdown from six weeks later (24-point comeback, “take the wind,” etc.), which came in fifth.
For those who might not recall the intricacies of this mid-October thriller, hop aboard the way-back machine:
After losing to the Baltimore Ravens in the previous year’s AFC Championship Game, the Patriots had opened the 2013 season with wins in four of their first five games. They’d been far from dominant, though, averaging just 19 points per game and losing a 13-6 rock fight to the Cincinnati Bengals in the pouring rain in Week 5.
The Saints, with head coach Sean Payton back from his yearlong Bountygate suspension, came in a perfect 5-0, winning each of their last three by double digits.
Two short Stevan Ridley touchdown runs gave the Patriots a 17-7 lead at halftime, but the Saints tied things up midway through the third quarter on a touchdown by Khiry Robinson. Two Stephen Gostkowski field goals ensued, followed by a 34-yard scoring strike from Drew Brees to Kenny Stills — over two defenders on third-and-20 — that put New Orleans ahead 24-23 with 3:29 remaining in the fourth.
That’s when the real drama began.
The ensuing Patriots drive went nowhere: a quick four-and-out with drops by Brandon Bolden and Aaron Dobson. The Saints made New England burn two timeouts, took a shot with a fade to Marques Colston (broken up by Alfonzo Dennard, who’d been beaten deep on Stills’ touchdown minutes earlier), then tacked on a Garrett Hartley field goal to make it 27-23 with 2:29 to play.
Two-and-a-half minutes to get four points? That’s an eternity for Tom Brady, especially since the Saints’ decision to pass on third down saved the Patriots a timeout.
But on his next snap, Brady heaved a deep ball to Julian Edelman that sailed well wide of its mark, resulting in an easy interception for cornerback Keenan Lewis.
“I’m really not sure what Tom Brady saw on that play,” FOX analyst Troy Aikman pondered on the game broadcast.
Saints ball at their own 30 with 2:24 remaining. Ballgame, right? That’s what a significant portion of the home crowd believed, with fans beginning to stream toward the parking lot as Brees’ offense returned to the field.
But the Patriots weren’t buried. Their defense forced a quick three-and-out, with Chandler Jones lassoing Brees for a 5-yard loss on third down. That brought Brady back out with 1:13 left on the clock, no timeouts and 70 yards to travel for a go-ahead touchdown.
Here’s where we should include a reminder that Brady was not surrounded by an arsenal of top-flight offensive weapons in 2013. Far from it. The supporting cast he had during this season was one of the weakest he played with during his two decades in New England.
The Patriots’ top five pass-catchers in 2012 were Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead. None of them were with the team and active when the 2013 season began. Four were gone, and the lone holdover — Gronkowski — was dealing with an injury that would sideline him until Week 7.
Making matters worse, the player the Patriots signed to replace Welker, Danny Amendola, left the Saints game with a concussion and wasn’t available in the fourth quarter (and was an all-around disappointment until much later in his New England tenure anyway).
When Brady broke the huddle to start this do-or-die drive, his five skill-position players were Edelman, Bolden, Austin Collie and rookies Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. And even Edelman wasn’t Edelman at this point. He was on his way to his first 1,000-yard season but had caught just 32 total passes over the previous three years.
On this series, none of that mattered.
Brady opened with a dart to Edelman for 23 yards, moving the Patriots across midfield. Then an in-cut to Collie that picked up 15 and a quick-hitter to Dobson for 6. Dobson was able to reach the sideline, stopping the clock with 35 seconds remaining.
Consecutive throws to Edelman near the goal line fell incomplete, but Brady found Collie — playing in his first game as a Patriot in the final season of his NFL career — on fourth-and-4 to keep the drive alive.
Brady spiked to stop the clock, then delivered the finisher: a 17-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Thompkins in the left corner of the end zone.
Up in the radio booth, 98.5 The Sports Hub color man Scott Zolak commemorated the winning score with an outburst of pure and nonsensical exuberance.
“He’s got it! Touchdown! He did it!,” Zolak exclaimed, bellowing over the roar of the Foxboro crowd and the narration of his Patriots play-by-play partner, Bob Socci. “Brady’s back! That’s your quarterback! Who left the building?! Unicorns! Show ponies! Where’s the beef?!
“Boy, when you thought you’ve seen it all. When it’s total despair. Fourteen years in the league. This situation after situation he’s been through. And to elevate a rookie. My God!”
And as remarkable as that finish was, it was only Act I in an unforgettable night for Boston spots.
FOX’s Pats-Saints broadcast led directly into Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. Less than three hours after Brady’s touchdown to Thompkins, David Ortiz blasted his game-tying grand slam into the Fenway Park bullpen, propelling the Sox to a series-evening win and, eventually, a World Series title.
The stakes won’t be quite as high, but the Red Sox will play another very important game this Sunday night. They currently lead the Yankees by two games in the AL wild-card race and will host New York for a pivotal three-game series beginning Friday.
The Patriots and Saints will kick off at 1 p.m. ET, followed by Sox-Yanks from Fenway at 7:08 p.m.