- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Nobody, least of all the quarterback, was pleased with how things had transpired.
"Probably our worst performance as an offense," receiver Deion Branch confirmed.
The New England Patriots trailed 16-13 in the fourth quarter to the Dallas Cowboys at home and had not scored a single point in the second half. They had already coughed up the ball four times.
Tom Brady had thrown two picks and, just as he did last week against Rex Ryan's New York Jets, spent an inordinate amount of time pulling himself up off the turf after absorbing bruising hits from pass rushers intent on disrupting his rhythm.
This time the source of his angst was Rex's brother, Rob Ryan, who also had marked Brady with a neon bull's-eye. As promised, Dallas' defensive guru threw "the kitchen sink" at Brady, chucking the sponges and Brillo pads at him as well for good measure.
Ryan's official weapon of choice was his "amoeba" defense, which meant that at least five defensive players were in the box with one (or fewer) down linemen.
The strategy behind the defense was to create confusion for Brady by disguising different looks and making it difficult to assess protection.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys utilized the amoeba defense only 14.1 percent of the time through the first 57:29 of the game. The Patriots, who had prepared for Ryan's trickery, averaged 4.9 yards a play and had a 22.2 first-down percentage in those situations.
But after New England got the ball on its own 20-yard line, down three points with 2:31 left in the game, Ryan implemented the amoeba 80 percent of the time against the Patriots' two-minute offense.
He then watched in utter dismay as Brady shredded his vaunted defense and coolly marched his team into the end zone -- with 22 seconds to spare.
Add Sunday's 20-16 thriller to the growing legend of the league's returning MVP. Brady completed eight of nine passes for 78 yards during that final drive, calmly directing his receivers to stay sharp, listen closely and "avoid stupid mistakes."
As good as Dallas' defense has been, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett should have known better than to hand Brady the ball with the game on the line and 2:31 on the clock.
The Cowboys had the ball with 3:36 left and an opportunity to seal the win. They attempted to do that with three straight running plays, which, if you are quarterback Tony Romo, should give you considerable pause. Even Dallas owner Jerry Jones mused afterward, "You'll always second-guess whether or not we should have tried to run a little offense down there instead of running it three times."
It should not be a news flash to the Cowboys that Brady flourishes in late-game situations. Sunday's winning drive marked the 32nd time in his career he's led New England to a victory following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie.
Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer has been around for only a few of them, but he said there was little doubt in his mind Brady would find a way to drive his team 80 yards.
"I'm not saying you get used to it," Hoyer said, "but you almost expect it.
"He's just so calm, and he knows exactly what we wants to do, and then he goes out and does it."
On that final drive, Brady's bunch averaged 8 yards a play against the amoeba and posted a first-down percentage of 62.5. His surgical precision included completions to four receivers, and featured routes up each sideline and plays up the middle.
The 8-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez with 22 seconds to play was actually a read for Rob Gronkowski, but Brady sniffed out what he termed "combination" coverages on Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and chose the receiver (Hernandez) who was in single coverage.
It sounds easy enough, but consider that the game was hanging in the balance, that Brady was under tremendous pressure all day from Ryan's blitzing defenders (he was sacked three times and absorbed eight QB hits) and that these decisions must be made in a matter of seconds.
A clear-headed, presence of mind in those situations is what separates elite Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Brady from quarterbacks with talent like, say, Tony Romo.
"I watched Tom Brady do this on TV for a long time," rookie running back Stevan Ridley said, "and now here I am, watching him have the same demeanor in person. That's why he's the best in the game. He always does the right thing."
The anatomy of that final drive included a 16-yard strike to Hernandez, a pass to Gronkowski on the right sideline for 11 yards, a pass to Welker, and another to Danny Woodhead. It included a Brady keeper on third-and-1 at the Dallas 30, but mostly it featured the poise and confidence of a winner.
The Ryan brothers have earned their reputations by flummoxing Brady on occasion, and Rob Ryan was creative in the number of rotating schemes he presented on Sunday. His defense does not give up the big play, and he made sure that trend continued at Gillette.
Through the first five games, Brady completed 57.7 percent of his passes that were 11 or more yards downfield. On Sunday, the number was only 28.6 percent.
"A lot of the stuff they did is hard to explain," Branch said. "They gave us a lot of different looks up front, a lot of different looks in the secondary.
"We were down in the red zone something like six times [without getting a touchdown], and that's not like us.
"So we'd go to the sidelines and try to adjust, then we'd go back out there and they came at us with something new. We'd plan for a blitz, then we'd see something else. It's a chess match."
Branch freely admitted chess is not his game, but even he knows you have a better chance of winning if you've got the king on your board -- and the Patriots do.
"There's no quarterback I'd rather have," coach Bill Belichick said.
The quarterback was content to take the win and a 5-1 record into the bye week, but he remains concerned about mental errors, "self-inflicted issues with communication" and untimely turnovers.
"You appreciate the wins because you could just as easily lose these games," Brady said.
He smiled wryly.
"You can't beat yourself up over the wins and then beat yourself up over the losses, even though that's what we tend to do around here," he added.
The bye week is here. The quarterback will soon get some time off to rest and replenish.
Once again, he's earned it.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
It took a while, but Tom Brady solved Rob Ryan's defensive puzzle in the end.