FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — After surrendering the game-winning touchdown to the New England Patriots with 5 seconds left Sunday, it was impossible for New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer to appreciate the big picture.
The Saints still shared the best record in the NFC with the Seattle Seahawks as they headed into their off week, an opportunity for them to heal up for their final 10 games of the year. Their division remained in shambles: Carolina is 2-3, Atlanta is 1-4 and Tampa Bay is 0-5.
But none of that consoled Greer. The 10-year veteran had let Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins slip behind him in the end zone as the Saints tried to maintain their four-point lead. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, leading the 38th fourth-quarter comeback of his career, fired the ball above a leaping Greer’s outstretched left hand and into the grasp of a higher-leaping Thompkins, who hauled in the 17-yard pass near the left corner of the end zone to give New England a stunning 30-27 victory.
The ruckus from Patriots fans who had not departed Gillette Stadium after New Orleans stormed back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take a four-point lead in the fourth quarter — and then intercepted Brady — rocked the walls of the building’s press box. After a failed kickoff return, Greer and his teammates skulked off the field with their shoulders drooped and their eyes dazed, realizing their chance at New Orleans’ third 6-0 start in franchise history had vanished.
“You never want to hurt your team,” Greer quietly but calmly told reporters at his locker. “We fought so hard. To have it slip through our fingers like that is tough to swallow. It’s hard to think of the overall picture when you’ve allowed something so close to slip away.”
What the Saints had let slip away after Greer’s mishap: the most improbable of victories at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots are now an astounding 37-6 since 2008 and an incomprehensible 21-1 in October since 2003.
Future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots (5-1) managed to do what no other team in the NFL likely will be able to do again for a long time: They held Drew Brees to a completion rate of less than 50 percent despite sacking him only once. They limited receiver Marques Colston to one grab for 11 yards. They prevented all-world tight end Jimmy Graham from making a single catch.
Belichick credited Graham’s silent night to masterful coverage by cornerback Aqib Talib. Graham entered the game as the NFL’s hottest pass receiver, with 37 catches for 593 yards and six touchdowns.
Both Talib and Graham, who was targeted six times, left the game early with injuries.
“Aqib really competed hard,” Belichick said. “Talib battled him, went toe-to-toe with him the whole way.”
Though Brady was sacked five times, he finished 25-of-43 for 269 yards and one touchdown. Former LSU running back Stevan Ridley, on 20 carries, accounted for 96 of New England’s 141 rushing yards and both of its touchdowns on the ground.
But it nearly wasn’t enough.
Faced with third-and-20 from New England’s 34 with 3:35 left and a 23-17 deficit hanging over his team, Brees launched a ball deep to rookie receiver Kenny Stills. Between two defenders, Stills reeled in the ball in the end zone for his first regular-season touchdown.
Stills was the third player for New Orleans on Sunday to score for the first time in his career. Brees, 17-of-36 for 236 yards and two touchdowns and an interception, connected with rarely used second-year running back Travaris Cadet for a 3-yard TD strike in the first quarter, and rookie running back Khiry Robinson (seven carries for 53 yards) added a 3-yard run in the third.
“It’s what the NFL is all about,” Stills said. “When some guys get shut down ... others need to step up and make a play. It’s great we had guys do that today.”
After the Saints forced a four-and-out at New England’s 24, Garrett Hartley added to the lead with a 39-yard field goal with 2:24 left. Cornerback Keenan Lewis picked Brady off on a long pass to wide receiver Julian Edelman on the first play of the ensuing drive at New Orleans’ 30, and it seemed the Saints had secured a 6-0 record in time for their off week.
But after three runs, the Saints punted, and New England took over at its 30 with 1:13 left and no timeouts.
It didn’t matter. Brady completed 5 of 7 passes for 70 yards on the last drive. New Orleans couldn’t return the ensuing kick and had to come to terms with its first defeat since coach Sean Payton returned from his yearlong suspension.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, whose unit had not given up more than 18 points all season, had to come to grips with the fact that his group gave up 12 more than that.
“They made some plays inside and obviously kept the clock going, but they were able to get up and ... they got some chunks,” Payton said. “Brady was able to make enough really good throws.”
At his locker, Greer admitted he would have trouble stopping himself from replaying Thompkins’ heroics in his mind, and he said he was humbled. But “this doesn’t define who I am,” he said. “This doesn’t define this team.”
The Saints next host the Buffalo Bills (2-4) on Oct. 27 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where they are 3-0 this year.
“5-and-1 is a good spot to be in,” Brees said. “Coming off a loss, that’s not the taste you want left in your mouth. You always want to get back to work as quickly as possible after that so that you can right the wrong ... but it is what it is.”
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved