Foxborough, Mass. - It took a heavyweight team and a heavyweight blow to knock the New Orleans Saints from the ranks of the unbeaten, a counter punch landed by an opponent that itself had been staggered and considered knocked out by thousands of the 68,756 fans who didn't hang around for the conclusion.
But New England steadied itself and delivered an eight-play, 70-yard drive that lasted 68 seconds, concluding with just five seconds remaining, to claim a 30-27 decision over the Saints on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
New Orleans (5-1) will enter its bye week having fallen seconds, and a couple of plays, short of remaining an unbeaten team.
And yet, losing on the road to New England (5-1), in the waning seconds of a game in which the Saints erased a 10-point halftime deficit, certainly won't be considered a debilitating setback, though having it slip away in the waning seconds – while leading 27-23 – did leave a mark.
"That's a tough, tough loss," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "New England did a very good job of kind of containing us offensively. We had too many three-and-outs early on.
"I can be better and need to be, and our staff the same way. I told the players, 'Look, we did some good things in the second half,' and I was proud of the way we fought back in it.
"Obviously, it's disappointing not to get the win but you have to credit your opponent. In this case, the (New England) offense, (quarterback) Tom (Brady) and those guys made a play late in the game, and those are tough. That's this league.
"It stings. It will sting for a while, but we've got a bye coming up and we just have to make sure it doesn't carry over to the next game."
The Saints were minutes away from forcing New England to be concerned about the carryover from losing its second consecutive game.
The Patriots took a 17-7 lead into halftime on the strength of two Stevan Ridley touchdown runs and a defense that stifled New Orleans for the first 30 minutes. The Saints punted four times in the first half and went three-and-out three times.
New England's advantage was sizable in most categories, including first downs (18-6), yards (232-130) and time of possession (18:44-11:16).
But the Saints emerged a different team from the locker room, and immediately began to pressure the Patriots and make their move. New Orleans opened the third quarter with an eight-play, 70-yard drive that ended with Garrett Hartley's 28-yard field goal to pull to within 17-10.
!(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/New-Orleans-Saints-at-New-England-Patriots-/7ea76976-4716-4c08-85f7-a3d954d3c317 "saints photos")And after forcing a Patriots three-and-out, New Orleans tied the score at 17-17 with a nine-play, 67-yard drive that ended on a 3-yard touchdown run by Khiry Robinson, the first NFL touchdown for the undrafted rookie running back.
The Patriots answered with a pair of field goals, the second one a 23-yarder from Stephen Gostkowski with 8:34 left to take a 23-17 lead.
But on a day when the Patriots took away Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (no catches, after entering as the NFL's leader in receiving yards, with 593) and also smothered reliable Marques Colston (one catch for 11 yards), the Saints' offense turned to other weapons to overtake New England.
"They disrupt you at the line of scrimmage," Payton said of the Patriots.
But they couldn't keep the touchdown drive off schedule.
Six of New Orleans' first seven plays on a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drives were runs. And after a holding penalty forced the Saints back 10 yards to New England's 34-yard line, and quarterback Drew Brees threw incomplete on first and second down, he lofted a pass down the right side that rookie receiver Kenny Stills hauled in in back right corner of the end zone, giving New Orleans a 24-23 lead with 3:29 left.
Stills (three catches, 64 yards) joined Robinson (seven carries, 53 yards) and running back Travaris Cadet in scoring their first NFL touchdowns Sunday.
The Saints forced New England to turn over the ball on downs and Hartley added a 39-yard field goal to widen the advantage to 27-23 before Brady threw an interception, and the Patriots forced a punt to begin their game-winning drive at their 30-yard line with 1:13 left.
Brady completed passes of 23, 15 and six yards before throwing incomplete twice, completing a 9-yarder on fourth-and-four and spiking the ball to stop the clock with 11 seconds remaining. From there, at the Saints' 17, he found receiver Kenbrell Thompkins behind cornerback Jabari Greer in back left corner of the end zone for the winning score.
"It was a tight throw," said Brady, who completed 25 of 43 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown, with an interception. "We sent all the guys to the end zone and at that point you're just trying to pick a side. I looked right and came back left and saw K made a move and slipped behind him, and I just tried to put it back there where he could make a play."
It was the last of Thompkins' three receptions, and the one Greer said he'll remember for a while.
"I hate it for my teammates, because they deserve better than that," he said.
For most of the second half, the Saints had been exactly that – better.
Defensively, they finished with a season-high five sacks and they warmed to the occasion offensively. They had more first downs (14-8), yards (231-144) and possession time (16:53-13:07) in the second half.
But they fell a little short, after staggering one of the NFL's heavyweights and almost supplying a knockout blow.
"It came down to the last couple of plays," said defensive end Cam Jordan, who recorded his team-leading fifth sack of the season. "We should've capitalized better on the defensive side of the ball.
"It ended up getting away from us at the end."
And no one was feeling otherwise.
"This one is difficult because you certainly felt like you had a chance," said Brees, completed 17 of 36 for 236 yards and two scores, with an interception. "We felt like if we kept hammering away that we could find a way to win.
"Lord knows we had our chances at the end there. I know you can't give Tom Brady and that offense three chances at a two-minute drill. So for us offensively, you sit there and you wrack your brain about, 'Man, we need to get one first down,' so that we could have put ourselves in position to run out the clock, or at least get the clock down so far that it would have been nearly impossible to come back."