FOXBOROUGH - It’s good to have the King on your side.
This game was a certified “shoulda,’’ as in the Dallas Cowboysshoulda won it, and the New England Patriots shoulda lost it. But the relieved Patriots are now sitting at 5-1 heading into their bye week, and the frustrated Cowboys are 2-3 after experiencing their bye week, the primary reason the presence on the New England side of Mr. Tom Brady.
His team trailing by a 16-13 score, and having been kept off the scoreboard since the 7:34 mark of the second period, Tom Brady and his offensive unit got the ball back on their 20-yard line with 2:31 left. They had one timeout and the two-minute warning to play with.
Ten plays later, they were in the end zone, 20-16 victors. If we all hadn’t seen it many times before, we might ask where that came from.
But we all have seen it many times before. We’ve been watching Tom Brady do what the great ones do for 10 years, which doesn’t mean it’s any less exciting to witness.
It mattered not that the four previous Patriots second-half possessions had gone punt, fumble, interception (a truly bad Brady play, one you’d have to call a “Romo’’), and, finally, punt capping a three-and-out.
On the winning drive, Brady was 8 for 9, completing passes to four receivers. The winner was an 8-yard TD pass to Aaron Hernandez. The 10 plays consumed a mere 2:09 on the clock, and the entire drive looked ridiculously easy, which we all know it wasn’t.
Bill Belichick was on message, as usual. It’s always going to be about the team.
“I think we just did a good job all the way around,’’ Coach Bill said. “Tom did a good job. We got good protection. Our receivers caught the ball, broke some tackles, got open. They pressured us at the end and they’ve got some really good pass rushers and we were able to block them long enough to make plays.’’
All true, of course, but the major reason the Patriots went home smiling was Brady. You think it doesn’t bolster the confidence of every person in that huddle, knowing that they had Brady making decisions and delivering the ball in a game-deciding situation? Oh, sure, he’s failed on occasion, but it’s always a shock when he does. What the world saw yesterday was Tom being Tom.
Asked if he lives for these moments, Brady took a pass.
“I prefer to be up four touchdowns with two minutes left,’’ he said.
No one would have complained if the Patriots had merely come up with a tying field goal. The Rob Ryan-devised Cowboys defense had come as advertised, holding the Patriots far under 30 points for the first time since the last time they faced a Rob Ryan-devised defense, a 34-14 walloping at the hands of the Browns last Nov. 7.
“You’re down 3 points, so you’ve got to get it to field goal range,’’ Brady said. “Once you get it in field goal range, you’re thinking touchdown.’’ Let the record show that it took Brady & Co. five plays to get the ball in Stephen Gostkowski field goal range (i.e. the Dallas 29). Brady had hit Hernandez for 16, Rob Gronkowski for 11, Wes Welker for 5, Welker again for 10, and Danny Woodhead for 9.
Once Brady hit Woodhead for 13 yards, advancing the ball to the Dallas 14 with 35 seconds left, there was no longer any thought in his head other than getting the ball into the end zone. On a second and 4 at the Dallas 8, he couldn’t go to Welker, he couldn’t go to Deion Branch, he couldn’t go to The Gronk, so he settled for a pretty good option in Hernandez, who already had seven receptions.
The way Brady sees it, Aaron Hernandez is a pretty good option at any time.
“He’s really been a dependable player,’’ lauded Brady. “Coach says a receiver has to run a good route, catch the ball, and do something with it, and Aaron does all of those things. That’s why he’s out there every week.’’
“I had an in route and Gronkowski had an out route,’’ Hernandez said, “and he’s a great player so he drew the safety’s attention and I came around and Brady made a great throw, and I just had to make the catch.’’
The simple fact is this was not a well-played game. There were 12 defensive men on the field three times. The Cowboys were spectacularly self-destructive, hurting themselves with penalties throughout. The Patriots must have threatened some sort of franchise record for missed tackles.
But with 2:31 remaining, you’d have to say the Cowboys had passed the sight test. In other words, you didn’t have to look at the scoreboard to know they were winning the game, and this was despite some questionable play-calling.
Say this for the Patriots defense: when it absolutely, positively had to come up with a stop, it managed to do so, forcing a punt out of a conservative series of downs, and doing so in a little over a minute.
Giving the ball back to an elite quarterback in a situation like that is a no-no. And hadn’t Rob Ryan himself only this past week declared Tom Brady to be the best QB of them all?
For Tom Brady, it was career fourth-quarter comeback victory No. 32. He kinda knows the drill.
“I think your margin of error is very, very small at that point,’’ Brady said. “You can’t not get the ball in the end zone.’’
You can’t give him the ball, either. But Rob Ryan already knew that.Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.