FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots pulled out yet another come-from-behind win Sunday against the Browns, and all it took was recovering an onside kick (something they hadn’t done since 1995), a questionable defensive pass-interference call, and a Danny Amendola touchdown — their second touchdown in the final 61 seconds.
New England had to watch a potentially game-winning 58-yard Billy Cundiff field goal land short of the crossbar before the home team could begin celebrating a 27-26 win, its 10th of the season.
“We stole one tonight,” cocaptain Matthew Slater said. “But in the win-loss column it doesn’t say ‘one stolen,’ it says ‘win.’ But we have a lot of room for improvement.”
“That was definitely memorable, huh?” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said, his thick eye-black streaked on his cheeks. “It’s not the way you would want to win, but we’ll take it.”
The Patriots suffered a potentially significant loss, however: Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had been brilliant since missing the first six weeks of the season as he rehabbed from multiple offseason surgeries, suffered what appeared to be a serious right knee injury in the third quarter.
Gronkowski hauled in a 21-yard catch on the left seam, and as he was running, safety T.J. Ward came in low and drilled Gronkowski in the side of the knee. The 6-foot-6-inch Pro Bowler crumpled to the Gillette Stadium turf. The television broadcast microphones picked up Gronkowski yelling, “My knee! My knee!”
He stayed down for several minutes before the cart was brought out to take him off the field; Slater was several feet behind Gronkowski while he was being tended to, on both knees as he prayed for his teammate.
After Gronkowski was loaded onto the back of the cart, Slater and a couple of his teammates, as well as Ward and Browns defensive lineman Phil Taylor, all approached Gronkowski before he was driven off.
Coach Bill Belichick was a bit forthcoming in regard to Gronkowski, saying after the game the tight end had been “taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation on his injury. That’s all I have.”
A league source told the Globe that Gronkowski would undergo an MRI Monday; another source said the team fears he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which would end his season.
Both Slater and Devin McCourty said that after watching everything Gronkowski went through in the previous year, between the four surgeries on his left arm and the operation on his back in June, it makes it even tougher to see their teammate felled again.
But quarterback Tom Brady said he didn’t think the sympathy for Gronkowski extends to the entire New England organization.
“I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots,” Brady said. “We’re with him. We support him.”
The high of yet another exhilarating win, mixed with the frustration of yet another slow start and tempered by the injury to Gronkowski, made for an interesting postgame locker room vibe.
New England trailed by 12 points when it got the ball with 2:39 to play, with only the two-minute warning and one timeout left.
But Brady, who had his second 400-yard passing game of the season (he was 32 for 52 for 418 yards with two touchdowns, an interception, and was sacked four times), made short work of things, going 8 for 9 for 80 yards on the 11-play, 82-yard drive that pulled New England within 26-21.
On the 2-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman, defensive back Jordan Poyer was flagged for unnecessary roughness, hitting Edelman in the facemask with his helmet at the end of the play.
The 15 yards worked in New England’s favor, because when Stephen Gostkowski lined up for the onside kick, it was at the 50, not the 35. So when the kick traveled the requisite 10 yards down the middle of the field before being recovered by Kyle Arrington, it put the Patriots just 40 yards from the end zone and potential go-ahead score. Exactly one minute remained.
The first play was to Danny Amendola for 10 yards. Then a pass to the end zone for Josh Boyce drew the controversial pass interference call against Leon McFadden, giving New England the ball at the 1 with 35 seconds left.
Amendola was thrown the ball again, this time wide right, and he crossed the goal line just inside the pylon. Touchdown.
“It was a play we work on every day in practice,” Amendola said. “[The Browns] manned it up, and we did a good job of executing. It was a good play.”
But Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski disagreed with the pass interference call, saying he felt both Boyce and McFadden were “jostling for the ball and the penalty was called. So at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what I think.”
Former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira, who now evaluates plays and penalties every Sunday for Fox Sports, wrote that in his opinion, the penalty should not have been called; Boyce and McFadden were hand-fighting down the field and “there was not enough contact for defensive pass interference to be called.”
(For the record, Pereira believed that referee Clete Blakeman’s crew was wrong to pick up the flag for an end-zone infraction against the Panthers on the final play of their game with the Patriots last month.)
The Browns still had 31 seconds left, with quarterback Jason Campbell hitting 3 of 4 passes to get his team inside New England territory, though not close enough for Cundiff, whose kick was straight but didn’t have the distance.
“That was awesome,” Brady said. “That was awesome. What a game. I’m just proud of the guys. We fought through a lot of adversity. A lot of mental toughness. We grinded it out, so it was pretty sweet.”
The Browns were up just 6-0 at halftime, unable to take advantage of some good scoring opportunities, but the Patriots offense started with a three and out, followed with an interception, then punted on its final three possessions of the half.
It was the fourth straight game and fifth in its last six that New England went into the locker room trailing.
New England’s first possession of the second half didn’t go much better: after an 11-yard completion from Brady to Gronkowski, there was a holding penalty on center Ryan Wendell, Brady was sacked for an 8-yard loss by Jabaal Sheard, and a third-and-20 pass to Shane Vereen was a few yards short, leading to another punt.
The Browns scored on their first possession of the third quarter, but Chudzinski opted to go for 2, hoping to make the score 14-0; however, back Chris Ogbonnaya was stuffed on the attempt.
Chudzinski could have used that point later in the game.
New England didn’t get on the board until less than two minutes remained in the third quarter, on a Gostkowski 33-yard field goal, but seconds later, an 80-yard Campbell-to-Josh Gordon touchdown put Cleveland ahead, 19-3.
“Going into the half, I thought we did decent; but we stayed on the field too long [on defense],” Ninkovich said. “One play went for a touchdown, we can’t have that; we shouldn’t have that. We can’t give those up.”
But the Patriots answered right back, with a three-play, 72-yard touchdown drive with all three plays going to Vereen: a 50-yard catch-and-run, 16-yard red-zone catch, and then a 6-yard scoring run.
New England went for 2 and made it, with Brady passing to Edelman. That put the score at 19-11, setting up the fourth-quarter fireworks.