The Browns had stifled the offense most of the day, holding the Patriots scoreless in the first half and to just 14 points in the first 57 minutes plus.
“I felt like we had it,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden said moments after the Patriots completed their shocking 27-26 comeback victory.
The Browns mostly played man coverage throughout the game, but switched to zone with a 12-point lead. The reasoning was sound.
“We played a coverage where we wanted them to throw the ball short. We were protecting the end zone,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “We mixed it around — Cover 2, Cover 4. Something that could protect the back end.”
Brady did have 325 passing yards to that point, but no touchdown passes. He already had lost his best weapon in Rob Gronkowski to a gruesome knee injury, and he didn’t have his two tallest wide receivers, either, as Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins both were inactive with injuries.
Still, the Browns knew what Brady was capable of. They had seen it in his comeback wins over the Bills, Saints, Broncos, and Texans this season.
“Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. That was the message,” cornerback Jordan Poyer said. “Just keep playing. It’s Tom Brady.”
“We talked about it all week — this guy, you can’t count him out,” Jackson said.
Brady didn’t force his throws. Even with the clock ticking down, he took what the Browns gave him: 6 yards to Shane Vereen underneath; 23 yards to Julian Edelman down the middle; Edelman for 19 down the middle; Vereen for 9 yards; Edelman for 6; Vereen for 4 yards, and then again for 13.
Dink and dunk, dink and dunk.
“I felt we did a pretty good job on him,” Jackson said of Vereen, who finished with 12 catches for 153 yards, franchise records for a running back. “We knew he was a pass-catching running back, but he didn’t do anything really to hurt us.”
Vereen got the Patriots down to the 2, and Brady found Edelman in the end zone on third down with 1:04 left to draw within 26-21. The Patriots had traveled 82 yards in 1:38, and Brady had targeted exactly two receivers: Vereen (32 yards) and Edelman (50 yards), picking apart the Browns’ zone over the middle and underneath.
“We were able to get some matchups that favored us, and we were able to exploit them and make some plays,” Vereen said.
Edelman held onto the touchdown pass despite getting popped by Poyer, who was flagged 15 yards for hitting a defenseless receiver. The penalty put the kickoff at the 50-yard line.
“I felt like I came in with my shoulder on his shoulder, but it is what it is,” Poyer said.
The Patriots still needed to recover the onside kick, which they hadn’t done since a playoff game against the Browns in January 1995 — when Bill Belichick was Cleveland’s coach.
“It’s a very low-percentage play,” Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. “I’ve probably only done four to five in a game, even going back to high school.”
The Patriots came out with six players flanked to Gostkowski’s right, and four to his left. The Browns defenders lined up accordingly.
“They showed 6 by 4, so we know when that happens we have to slide to the overload side,” Browns running back Fozzy Whittaker said.
But the Patriots didn’t call for a kick to either side.
“I came over to the sideline after we scored and Josh [McDaniels] said, ‘We’re going for the middle bunt,’” Brady said.
Gostkowski tapped the ball up the middle, and tried to “box out” the Browns with his body and recover the ball himself.
“He kicked a perfect ball. That was awesome,” Brady said.
Whittaker went for the recovery. He tapped it just shy of the 40-yard line. The ball went right to Kyle Arrington, who smothered it at Cleveland’s 40 with exactly one minute remaining.
“It might have been 9¾ yards, so I was just hoping it wasn’t a flag,” Arrington said. “Just a good, legal play.”
But the Patriots still had work to do. They had to score another touchdown, quickly. Before Sunday, they had never recovered an onside kick, then gone down to score the game-winning points.
Brady hit Danny Amendola for 10 yards on the first play, and 20 seconds rolled off the clock. On the next play, with the Browns showing man coverage, Brady decided to finally take a big shot. Josh Boyce, the fourth-fastest receiver at last year’s draft combine (4.38 seconds in the 40), ran a fly route on rookie cornerback Leon McFadden.
The pass was too far, and the ball fell incomplete. But there was a little contact between the two players. Field judge Dyrol Prioleau stood right next to the play and immediately threw his flag for pass interference.
“I felt like those two were both jostling for the ball,” Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what I think.”
“Terrible call,” Browns defensive end Paul Kruger said. “I feel like we got robbed a little bit.”
“We’re on the road. You can’t expect no calls to go your way, especially when you’re playing the New England Patriots,” Poyer said.
One play later, Brady hit Amendola on a quick out-pattern for a 1-yard TD with just 31 seconds left. Gillette Stadium, quiet and somber all day because of the Patriots’ poor play and Gronkowski’s injury, was now rocking with the Patriots ahead, 27-26.
“It’s a play we work on every day in practice,” Amendola said. “They manned it up, and we did a good job of executing.”
The 2-point conversion failed, but the comeback was complete. The Patriots had scored 13 points, gained 93 yards, and got 45 yards worth of penalties in exactly two minutes of game time. Brady was 10 for 12 for 93 yards and two touchdowns on those final two drives.
Billy Cundiff’s last-ditch 58-yard field goal attempt fell way short, and the Patriots escaped with their third consecutive double-digit comeback victory.
“That team over there, they never got down,” Haden said. “This one’s crazy. Give them all the credit. They did what they had to do to somehow to come back and win.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin