It's amazing how close this was to being a huge victory for the Saints (5-1). It would have been their grittiest to date, if not their prettiest. Instead, they were left to dwell on all the disturbing reasons why they lost.
The story was almost about how many times the Saints' defense stepped up in the second half. Until it didn't.
The story was almost about how the Saints' offense rallied without Jimmy Graham catching a pass. Until it couldn’t.
The story was almost about how the torch was being passed from Brady and Bill Belichick to Drew Brees and Sean Payton as the savviest quarterback-coach duo in the game today. Until it wasn't.
Kenny Stills' fourth-quarter touchdown should've been the game winner. Except it wasn't.
"Lord knows we had our chances at the end there," said Brees, who was so stymied by the Patriots' defense that he failed to complete at least 20 passes for the first time in 58 games, snapping his NFL-record streak.
Brees, who was 17-for-36 for the game, almost pulled off his own fourth-quarter comeback. A gorgeous 34-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenny Stills gave New Orleans the lead with 3:29 remaining. But the Saints failed to convert any more first downs after that, which allowed Brady to have three final cracks at a comeback.
"I know that you can't give Tom Brady and that offense three chances at a two-minute drill," Brees said. "So for us offensively, you sit there and rack your brain about, 'Man, we need to get one first down.'"
Technically, the Saints' defense is the unit that let the victory slip through its grasp. It's hard to pin much blame on the defense, though, since it delivered time and time again in the second half.
The defense had held the Patriots out of the end zone on eight straight possessions before that final, fateful one. Cornerback Keenan Lewis had even intercepted a poorly thrown floater by Brady with 2:16 remaining that seemed like it might seal the deal.
But the defense couldn't come up with that one last stop. The Saints let Brady march his team down the field quickly with short and mid-range passes. Then they left cornerback Jabari Greer in single coverage in the end zone against Thompkins, and Greer let the ball get over his head.
Greer, a 10-year veteran, faced the fire and took full blame afterward. He said it was the first game-winning touchdown he has allowed in his career and admitted he'll replay it in his mind for a long time. But he insisted he and his teammates will bounce back.
"That doesn't define who I am. That doesn't define my team," Greer said. "We fought hard. We're resilient. It happens like that. ½ I'm a big boy. Just got to make that play next time. I hate it for my teammates. Fought so hard. We deserve better than that."
Ultimately, though, the Saints' troubles on Sunday started hours earlier -- when their prolific offense was completely knocked out of its comfort zone by the Patriots' physical defensive approach. The Saints went three-and-out on three of their first four drives and trailed 17-7 at halftime. Graham, New Orleans' Pro Bowl tight end, went without a catch for the first time since 2010.
Not only did the Patriots do a great job of taking away Graham -- using the rare tactic to match up physical cornerback Aqib Talib against him, as well as frequent double teams -- but they also held receiver Marques Colston to one catch for 11 yards and kept most of the other Saints' weapons in check as well.
Normally, Brees and Payton thrive on finding the open man. But the Patriots did a great job of chipping guys at the line of scrimmage and playing physical bump-and-run coverage to disrupt receivers.
"They were still playing man and everything," Saints running back Darren Sproles said. "But they did a great job of it."
Ultimately, the Saints adjusted and started to succeed with their running game in the second half. And Brees simply let his guy win in the end zone when Stills beat double coverage for that outstanding touchdown catch on a third-and-20 play in the fourth quarter.
But Brees also tried to force a few too many passes into Graham, including an ill-advised ball that went over Graham's head and was intercepted by Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington in the fourth quarter. That set up a field goal that gave New England a 23-17 lead at the time.
"Obviously, in hindsight, I wish I hadn't thrown it. There was no need for it [on third-and-long]," said Brees, who said he otherwise stayed smart about his attempts to get Graham involved. "It's one-on-one and we feel like our guys, no matter who is covering them, can win one-on-one. [But] listen, they've got good players too, and sometimes they are going to get you."
Longtime Patriots observers suggested that New England's defensive plan and performance was reminiscent of the one that put them on the map in Super Bowl XXXVI, when Belichick's physical approach shut down the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."
"Well, one thing they do a good job with, is they disrupt you at the line of scrimmage better than anyone," Payton said. "They do a really good job of getting hands on receivers and tight ends. They are very well coached, and they are disciplined."
Afterward, Belichick even came up with the perfect one-liner to sum it all up.
"Sorry if you had to rewrite some of those stories there at the end," Belichick said.