- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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Down but never out!!! Don't know how we did it but glad we did lol GO PATS!!!!!!
— Shane Vereen (@ShaneVereen34) December 9, 2013
If Vereen doesn’t know how to explain it, how possibly can we? After all, he was one of the star performers in the Patriots’ improbable 27-26 comeback victory over the Cleveland Browns. The team was behind by 12 points with 2:39 remaining only to charge back with two touchdowns in a span of 30 seconds.
How is this stuff happening to this team?
How can they play so poorly for stretches of games, only to pull it out in the end -- the heart-stopping finishes since mid-October coming against the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans and most recently the Browns. We also could include the Miami Dolphins, although that wasn’t as much of a nail-biter after the Patriots fell behind 17-3 at halftime but did their best comeback work in the third quarter before pulling away late.
It has been repeated that slow starts and playing down to their competition eventually will catch up to the Patriots, but it hasn’t happened yet. So it can now decisively be said about the 10-3 Patriots: They are flawed, and a feared torn ACL for star tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday puts a major dent in their Super Bowl hopes, but their most redeeming quality is their resilience.
If you’re going to beat them, you have to knock them out, which they proved again Sunday -- with a little help from a questionable 29-yard pass-interference penalty on the winning drive.
“That’s the attitude of our team, we’re not done until the clock says zero,” said Vereen, who has “RB” in front of his name on the roster but was more “WR” with 12 receptions for 153 yards Sunday. “Down but never out. When you have Tom [Brady] as your quarterback, you know you’ve always got a shot.”
The Patriots looked like toast Sunday against a four-win Browns team, facing a 26-14 deficit with 2:39 remaining after Cleveland scored a touchdown. Then the improbable happened.
“We had to make just about every play we made at the end and fortunately we did,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Usually when you put yourself in that kind of situation it doesn’t always happen that way. If one thing goes wrong, then it doesn’t work out.”
The final tally: 11 passes, one run, one spike to stop the clock, one debatable pass-interference call and one brilliant onside kick, followed by a five-play defensive “stand” as the Browns’ final 58-yard field goal to the open and often-harder-to-kick-toward side of the stadium fell short.
Of the final plays, the onside kick was most rare when considering it was the first time in franchise history the Patriots have recovered one and converted the ensuing possession into a game-winning score, according to Bob Hyldburg, the author of the book “Total Patriots.” Prior to Sunday, the only other time the Patriots recovered an onside kick in any victory was on Sept. 27, 1964.
The Patriots lined six players to the right of kicker Stephen Gostkowski and four to his left. As Gostkowski approached the ball, two players from both sides came in motion toward him before charging forward with Gostkowski, who gently struck the ball in front of him and ran in front of it before sliding to shade any oncoming Browns.
The play called the “middle bunt” looked like the perfect call based on the way Cleveland was aligned, with five players up on one side, and three on the other, with a sizable hole between the hash marks where Gostkowski kicked it.
“Huge, huge kick by Steve,” Belichick said of Gostkowski, who last weekend nailed two 53-yard field goals in the fourth quarter -- to tie and win -- in a 34-31 comeback over the Texans.
“I slid and saw that the ball was just about to be 10 [yards] and I kind of waited,” Gostkowski explained. “That’s the thing -- I kick it, try to get in front of it, and slide and it’s supposed to fall right to me.”
The difference on this one was that Browns running back Fozzy Whittaker made contact with Gostkowski, hit the ball, and it bounced to Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington. Not exactly the way it was drawn up, but they’ll take it, of course.
“Just a great play; I’ve never been that jacked up after a game,” said Gostkowski, now in his eighth season. “I don’t celebrate too much after field goals, but when we get an onside kick, I was all over the place. I probably looked like an idiot out there.”
The rest was up to Brady, who threw for 418 yards, and as Belichick said after the game, “We’ve seen Tom do this many times before. I think it’s probably all been said before.”
It has, although we can’t quite remember a season like this one, where the Patriots can look like one of the worst teams in the NFL for long stretches before producing a dramatic are-you-kidding-me-type comeback. Similar to most of their other comebacks in 2013, this one seemed implausible -- down 12 with 2:39 to play and just one timeout.
“It didn’t look good there, but we’re going to keep fighting,” Brady acknowledged. “Sometimes you may come up short, but it’s not going to be lack of effort or toughness. We showed we have some of that.”
It is, in fact, this flawed team’s most redeeming quality.