By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots offense has recently flashed the dangerous Tom Brady-led machine of fonder years, at the most important time. That's mainly because for two games in a row, they've put together go-ahead touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter.
Brady's latest score could have been enough to win on Sunday against the Dolphins. But it ultimately didn't work out, thanks to a last-minute answer by Ryan Fitzpatrick and a Brady pick-six that landed them in an unnecessary dogfight in the first place. But the clutch drives have at least given the offense something to build on as they get ready for a quick turnaround against the Titans in the wild card round.
Despite a middling overall performance last Sunday for Brady, whose pick-six turned out to be back-breaking, he came through in a spot where he needed to dig deep for a big moment. On what was the Patriots' last real chance to steal a win, Brady rediscovered the same heroics he's delivered so many times over his 19 seasons as a starter.
The clutch drive was a total team effort. It started with a 38-yard return for Brandon Bolden. Brady went 4-for-5 for 47 yards and the go-ahead touchdown to James White, spurred on the score by a dynamic block from Shaq Mason. They added 18 yards on three carries and went 2-for-2 on third down - including Mohamed Sanu's biggest catch as a member of the Patriots, a 22-yard grab on third-and-4.
The touchdown drive continued an affirmation of the Patriots offense from their Week 16 win over the Bills. In that game the defense held up at the end, so the Patriots got to celebrate a vintage Brady drive that featured a 30-yard catch-and-run and two-point conversion by Julian Edelman, a Brady sneak for a first down, and some Herculean running by Rex Burkhead. Brady obviously was sick to his stomach about throwing a pick-six and losing last Sunday, but he has to feel good about those final drives.
"I think we always feel like we have a great plan," said Brady on Thursday. "I feel like we’re going to go try to execute the plan as best we possibly can. That’s been no different than what it’s been all year. I don’t think we go into any games going, 'Man, I really hate what we’re doing.' I really do love what we’re doing, trying to attack them the right way and go out there and score enough points to win."
It helps that the Patriots are used to these kinds of situations, having played in the last three Super Bowls in a row. And these recent playoff games have almost always been tightly contested.
"It’s what you play for, these opportunities," said Burkhead. "They don’t come easy. You get here and the lights are on and this is where games really matter, when they count. It’s win or lose, win or die. You’re out of the playoffs and no longer in position if you lose, so just the buildup, the hype around it all, you just try to embrace it."
It hasn't been perfect and has rarely looked crisp for the offense. But after hitting the stretch run, they've at least shown an ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments of games. The past two go-ahead drives have resembled other times that Brady overcame a rough start and triumphed in harrowing situations. Brady in the fourth quarter against the Bills and Dolphins hearkened back to classic moments like the Patriots' fourth-quarter comeback against the Jaguars in the 2017 AFC Championship Game and their iconic Super Bowl comebacks against the Falcons and Seahawks.
Their chances of getting back to those stages are as slim as any season in Bill Belichick's tenure, but the Patriots remain a hard team to kill or bet against in a playoff situation.
Now the stakes are significantly higher against the Titans than they were in Weeks 16-17. The Patriots will need to actually back up their rhetoric of treating this week like a playoff game, which they hopefully will since it's a real, live playoff game this time. But the past two contests have shown that they're at least capable of pulling off the old clutch magic when it comes time to give the team a chance to win.
"We always have confidence, no matter what the situation is," said running back James White on Tuesday. "Coach McDaniels does a great job of dialing up good plays in those types of situations. We all know that we have to execute when those situations arise. We practice those situations all year long in practice and when they come up in a game, I think everybody is confident to go out there and get the job done. Whenever our back’s against the wall, you’ve got to be able to answer."
Perhaps the talent level isn't what it once was. It may translate to a different-looking Patriots offense than we've seen in other playoff runs. But the execution was there on the most important drives of the last two games. If it comes time to do it again vs. the Titans, they've provided a pair of confident statements that could be heralding more magic to come.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].