FOXBOROUGH — The field parted in front of him, so Tom Brady took off.
On 42-year-old legs he ran, confident he could take advantage of a Chiefs defense backed deep into double coverage, desperate enough to do anything to convert a crucial fourth-down, fourth-quarter play. Across the 30-yard line he cruised. Across the 20-yard line he churned, a beautiful, lumbering sight in football pads.
Finally, before he could cross the 10-yard line, he slid, coming to rest safely at the 12, a 17-yard scramble that set up the Patriots in the red zone. With just more than 2½ minutes to go and his Patriots hot on the comeback trail, within a touchdown after trailing by as many as 16 points, Brady bounced up from his scamper already pumping his fists in celebration, believing in that moment the Patriots just might salvage this crazy back-and-forth game with their fellow AFC powerhouse Chiefs, and just might discover the offensive heroics that have eluded them all season long.
“Just had a little space,” Brady said afterward. “Nice to get the first down there. We needed it. We got down in the scoring area but just couldn’t quite get it in. Disappointed in that.”
Indeed, the touchdown that felt so inevitable never came, not after four straight passes, a completion to James White for a 2-yard loss, an incompletion to Matt LaCosse, a 9-yard completion to Julian Edelman, and the final one, an incompletion to Edelman, the last offensive play New England would run in a 23-16 loss. And hey, on a night when officials cost the Patriots two potential second-half touchdowns, blowing a fumble play dead before Stephon Gilmore could complete his open run to the end zone and calling N’Keal Harry out of bounds when his foot was clearly inside the line before he hit the pylon, Brady shouldn’t have needed to be in such desperation mode as he was.
But regardless of some more bad officiating in a season that has already had more than its fill, what Brady reminded us with that run is just how difficult it has been this year for the offense to get any flow or traction, and just how creative it has had to become to find a rhythm. Sunday’s totals (278 yards of offense, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown) included a flea-flicker on the first score, a 37-yard Brady strike to Edelman by way of White, as well as a halfback pass from White to Jakobi Meyers that netted 35 yards to start that final drive.
“Yeah, just trying some different things to give us a little spark or momentum,” Brady admitted. “We had a couple big ones tonight . . . Those were good plays. Those were good momentum plays. I wish we could have made a few more of the other ones, too.”
Time is running perilously short to find that offensive magic. Sunday’s loss, the Patriots’ second in a row and first at Gillette Stadium (regular season and playoffs) in 21 games, dropped them to 10-3 overall. Though still second in the AFC standings and first atop the AFC East, nothing is assured as they head into the final three games of the regular season. The questions surrounding the offense still need answers, and for all Brady was inspired by some better production in the second half Sunday, there is no way to know what might or might not happen as this depleted unit limps toward the finish line.
“I don’t want to make any predictions,” Brady said. “It’s a different team every year. I may have certain experiences with things but this particular team as a whole hasn’t been through different situations. So I try to work with them through the course of a whole season. We have pretty big games to go and we’ve got to get back to winning football.”
This has been the NFL’s winningest team for two decades now, and once upon a time, was the greatest comeback team of them all, too. We don’t even have to go all the way back to a monumental Super Bowl against the Falcons a couple years back. Just go back to a Sunday night last year, when the Patriots were playing these same Chiefs, when they were able to stand tall and stand last in a wild, high-scoring shootout at Gillette, or even back to the AFC title game in Kansas City in January, when Brady engineered yet another signature game-winning drive, covering 75 yards in overtime. But all the crucial third-down conversions he was able to make that night were not to be found Sunday, leaving Brady to do it himself.
“That was all guts, all him,” receiver Phillip Dorsett said, himself the owner of a ref complaint when he didn’t draw a pass-interference flag on the play just prior to Brady’s scramble. “If you see it open up you got to take off and that’s what he did. That’s why he is who he is, because he’ll do whatever it is and whatever it takes to win a game.”
“He was moving,” echoed Duron Harmon. “[He’s] pliable. He was running, but obviously you see the emotion he had after that.”
“He is always going to do whatever it takes to win a football game,” Devin McCourty said. “If that comes down to him showing speed and taking off on a big play in a situation that we needed the first down, that’s going to be there.”
The Patriots should be able to restart next week against one-win Cincinnati, and Brady, his right elbow wrapped in ice after the game, left no doubt about his readiness. “I’ll probably be on the injury report but I’ll be there next Sunday,” he said.
Still, it’s all part of the same strange feeling this season has had. As the team headed to the locker room at halftime Sunday, trailing, 20-7, it did so to a chorus of boos from a home crowd that hadn’t witnessed a loss in two seasons, whose team had already won 10 games and is atop its division, and one that has won three championships in the last five years.
“You hear cheers, you hear boos, that’s part of being in sports,” Brady said.