Coaching not to lose against Tom Brady almost guarantees a loss. That's exactly what happened to Sean Payton, Rob Ryan and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
One of New England's greatest fourth-quarter comebacks since Brady came on the scene in 2001 and began winning tight games (and Super Bowls) made for high drama and great television. It didn't happen simply by Brady waving his magic wand; a slew of decisions on both sides led to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins' 17-yard TD catch with 5 seconds left for a 30-27 victory.
The problem with many of the decisions the Saints made was how conservative they turned, on offense and defense.
"There's going to be some games like that where you're wrestling over one specific play or one sequence of plays," Payton said. "We were able to get the stops defensively. We weren't able to get that one first down we needed. That gave them an opportunity to go ahead and win the game, which they did. They made a real good play."
After New Orleans took a 24-23 lead with 3:29 remaining on Drew Brees' brilliant TD pass to rookie Kenny Stills, the Patriots got the ball back three times. Three times!
And with the exception of one pass on third down to Marques Colston on which he was well covered, the Saints went into semi-shutdown mode with their prolific offense.
|The Saints couldn't find a way to get the ball to J. Graham (USA Today Sports)|
"We were kind of paying attention to the clock and we were trying to get some yardage and possibly get a first down," Payton said, referring to the two possessions that led to a field goal following a fourth-down stop in Patriots territory, and a punt to set up the final, decisive drive for New England. "It's just the decision, philosophically, run or pass, knowing that when you throw it, there's a potential clock stoppage."
After the throw to Colston, the Saints lost their aggression on offense, which normally is contrary to everything Payton and Brees do with the ball. Their three plays after Keenan Lewis' interception at the Saints 30 with 2:16 to go were runs by Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas that netted a total of 3 yards, and a rollout — to the left — by Brees on which he was dumped for a 5-yard loss.
Because New England had a timeout and the two-minute warning for stopping the clock, the Saints played right back into Brady's hands.
"We kind of thought of a few things, toyed with a few things, but the clock and with the way we had gotten off the field defensively, it made sense to us," Payton said.
It had to make the Patriots smile.
"Sean is an excellent play caller," said former Jets and Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. "People will question the play call. You roll to one side and you have only one side to throw the ball on. He is moving to the left, and you can't throw anything to the right.
"You've got to make first downs. You've got an elite quarterback, at that point if you are going to throw it, why not open it up? An elite quarterback having all his options.
With 73 seconds to go, it was Brady with all the options, even with no timeouts and 70 yards to cover.
It didn't hurt New England when it saw that Ryan's come-at-you defense was laying back more than it had for most of the game, when it had five sacks and plenty more pressures on Brady.
Playing not to lose.
"This was one of those games that became a matter of red zone stops," Edwards said. "A couple times New England couldn't score in the red zone. But when you keep it close, with two elite quarterbacks, when you get that, it all depends on who has the ball last, and that's what happened. Never fails."
Brady rarely fails in such situations, particularly when he is facing a three-man rush. As Edwards noted, Ryan tried to mix up his schemes and twice did rush five men, hoping to force Brady into an uncomfortable throw.
"Rob did a few things, and Brady got them on a post pass over the middle," Edwards said. "When you bring pressure and they hit you for a play, you back off."
Why? At least if the opponent quickly beats your aggressive defense with a big play, you have time to rally with one of your own. Brady might be the master at such comebacks, but Brees isn't too bad, either.
"Here's the crazy part: Tom had the ball three times to beat you," Edwards said. "Give him three times and he is going to beat you."