FOXBOROUGH — When Keenan Lewis cradled the pass from Tom Brady, a late interception that seemingly sealed a win by the Saints, the majority of the disappointed home crowd headed for the exits, leaving Gillette Stadium less than half full.
The Patriots offense had frittered away a 10-point halftime lead, bogged down by poor execution and questionable play calling. Trailing by 4 points with barely two minutes left to play, all signs pointed to a two-game losing streak and a week’s worth of questions and criticism leading into another date with the rival Jets.
Then a funny thing happened. Given one final chance, the Patriots put together the kind of drive that can save a season. Grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat, the Patriots marched 70 yards in eight plays, beating New Orleans Sunday in most improbable fashion, 30-27, on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Kenbrell Thompkins. The clock showed that only five seconds were left in the game; those still in the stands created a loud enough roar to let those walking dejectedly toward their cars know that they had just missed a fantastic finish.
“We knew it would come down to the last minute,” Thompkins said. “Until that clock said all zeros on it, we were going to fight to the finish, and that’s what we did.”
Hope appeared lost when Brady threw the interception with 2:16 left and the Saints leading, 27-23. It capped a stretch of head-scratching play from the offense, which started earlier in the quarter, when the Patriots were ahead, 20-17.
With a first-and-goal from the Saints’ 9-yard line, the Patriots dialed up three runs, which gained only 4 yards. Instead of making it a two-score game, a field goal made it 23-17.
The Saints took advantage of the red-zone failure, taking the lead on a 34-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Kenny Stills on third and 20 that made it 24-23, New Orleans. But the Patriots needed just a field goal, and had more than three minutes and all three timeouts left, not to mention the two-minute warning. No time to panic, no reason to desert the balanced game plan, which at that point had seen the Patriots run more than pass, with Stevan Ridley approaching 100 rushing yards.
Instead, the Patriots opted for four straight passing plays. The first was complete for just 4 yards, and the final three were incomplete. In 45 quick seconds, down just 1 and with all three timeouts left, the Patriots abandoned the run and coughed it over on downs, deep in their territory. The Saints responded with a field goal, to take a 27-23 lead with 2:24 left.
Brady’s interception to Lewis followed on the next play, prompting the mass exodus.
But the defense held — using the final team timeout and the two-minute warning — giving the ball back to the offense with 1:13 remaining. The scene was simple: The Patriots had to score a touchdown, with no timeouts and 70 yards to go.
A sense of urgency? Definitely. Time to panic? Not quite.
“I think we all look to No. 12 in certain situations like that, we look for Tom. He’s not shaken, and that goes down the chain, it rubs off on us,” said receiver Austin Collie, who made his Patriots debut. “I don’t think any of us panicked. I think we always knew that we were in it and we could come back.”
A 23-yard completion to Julian Edelman started the drive, followed by a 15-yarder to Collie to put the Patriots at the Saints 32. Collie was needed again, after a 6-yard throw to Aaron Dobson was followed by two straight incompletions. Fourth and 4 from the 26, with 24 seconds left.
Brady hit Collie for 9 yards to bring a new set of downs. After spiking the ball and stopping the clock, Brady found Thompkins in the far left corner. The rookie receiver jumped over cornerback Jabari Greer, grabbed the lofted pass from Brady, and barely got both feet inbounds. A perfect play ended a must-have drive.
“I put it up there for him and he came down and made a great catch,” said Brady, who was 5 for 8 on the final drive, for all 70 yards. “There were a lot of great catches there at the end. Julian with the seam ball to start the drive, then Austin had a fourth-down catch. That was great situational football and a great win against a really good team.”
For Brady, it was the 38th time he has led the Patriots to a win after trailing or being tied in the fourth quarter. He’s used to it. Thompkins and Collie are not.
“We live for moments like that, to get your number called and have the quarterback put trust in you, give you an opportunity with the ball, it definitely says a lot,” said Thompkins, still clutching the ball he scored the winning touchdown with long after the game, after he had showered and was in street clothes. “We were saying on the sideline the whole time that we were going to get another chance, and when we did we’d have to take full advantage of it.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.