FOXBORO -- It had to be Kenbrell Thompkins. Of course it did. The undrafted 25-year-old rookie receiver who shined in training camp but seemed to fight every ball thrown his way -- caught or not -- through five weeks of the regular season made the catch of his life on Sunday. He snatched a 17-yard touchdown from Tom Brady with five seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a wild, improbable win over the Saints, 30-27.
The final drive of the game was vintage Brady. He threw to the back left corner of the north end zone at Gillette Stadium, where Thompkins was single covered. Leaping with both arms outstretched, Thompkins reached over Saints defensive back Jabari Greer, grabbed the ball with steady hands, dropped both feet in bounds, and fist pumped in celebration like a middleweight desperate for a late-round knockout.
"I think those of us around [Thompkins] on a daily basis aren't surprised by a play like that," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game, "because he's made plenty of them."
Before Thompkins was the ecstatic hero, Brady was the picture of calm. The quarterback has had his patience tested time and again this season -- especially when his rookie receivers have made mistakes -- but his final drive was coolly orchestrated.
It began at the New England 30 with 1:13 remaining in the game. Brady hit Julian Edelman for 23 yards down the seam to get things rolling. Then he found newly-acquired wideout Austin Collie -- called upon with Danny Amendola out of the game with a head injury -- for 15 yards. A completion to rookie receiver Aaron Dobson went for six yards, and another completion to Collie went for nine. After Brady stopped the clock with a spike, he found Thompkins for the winner.
Brady's final completion made him 25-for-43 for 269 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the victory.
"Guys made plays 'til the end," said Brady, whose game-winning drive was his second of the season and the 37th of his career. "Guys made big-time catches and it was just a great game."
With two-and-a-half minutes remaining, it looked as though the Saints had the game won. Kicker Garrett Hartley booted a 39-yard field goal to go up, 27-23. Though the Patriots had time and one timeout left, their first play from scrimmage was a Brady pass deep down the middle to Edelman that was picked by Saints corner Keenan Lewis.
Game over, right? Well, no. The Patriots defense -- with help from a five-yard sack by defensive end Chandler Jones -- forced a three-and-out to set up the final march.
It was the final stand by defense that stayed with the Saints potent passing game for almost four full quarters.
But with three-and-a-half minutes left in the fourth, Drew Brees dropped back to throw and floated a ball over Alfonzo Dennard, in front of Steve Gregory and into the arms of receiver Kenny Stills. The 34-yard touchdown and the ensuing extra point gave the Saints a 24-23 lead.
The Saints started clicking on offense in the second half and hummed along once Patriots shutdown corner Aqib Talib suffered a hip injury that forced him out of the game in the third quarter.
A 28-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley on the Saints' first second-half possession cut New England's lead to 17-10. On their next drive -- a nine-play march that lasted just over four minutes -- Khiry Robinson rushed in from three yards to tie it at 17.
Stephen Gostkowski would nail a 54-yard field goal to put the Pats up 20-17 late in the third quarter, and he then hit a chip shot from 23-yards out in the fourth after a Kyle Arrington interception in Saints territory.
Then came Brees-to-Stills.
Before Brees made that end zone toss, the Patriots had pieced together a complete team effort, the kind they had been calling for during the week after the Patriots' offense couldn't support its defense in a 13-6 Week 5 loss to the Bengals.
The defense, led by Talib's coverage, held star tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch for the first time this season and kept Brees' other big-name weapons (Marques Colston and Darren Sproles) from making big game-changing plays. It was New Orleans no-namers -- Stills, Robinson and running back Tavaris Cadet, who caught a three-yard score in the first quarter -- who filled out the box score.
Offensively, the Patriots were fluid, especially in the first half.
In the first two quarters, the Patriots offense quickly showed that everything that occurred in their Week 5 loss to Cincinnati was but a distant memory.
They used their no-huddle, up-tempo offense to great effect, posting 232 total yards. Brady went 16-for-22 for 163 yards, while Ridley added 61 yards and two scores on 11 attempts.
New England's offense shook off a drop on its first play from scrimmage by Dobson to put together a 14-play drive -- complete with a rare Brady 11-yard run for a first down on third-and-10 -- that resulted in a Stephen Gostkowski 35-yard field goal.
The Saints answered at the end of the first quarter with Cadet's score, but the Patriots responded with a touchdown of their own on their very next possession. Ridley rushed four times for 20 yards on the drive and finished it with a one-yard plunge to give the Patriots a 10-3 lead two minutes into the second quarter.
Ridley came through again, showing toughness in his first game back after missing Week 5 with a knee injury, when he fought through would-be Saints tacklers for a four-yard touchdown run on the Patriots' following drive. That gave the Patriots a 17-7 lead that they took into the half.
Despite allowing five sacks to pressure schemes drawn up by Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Patriots offense looked balanced -- Brady completed passes to seven receivers in the first half alone -- and much more like the bunch that put up 30 points in a win in Atlanta and not the group that got only six in Cincy.
They scored 30 again on Sunday to hand New Orleans (5-1) its first loss of the season. They'll face Ryan's twin brother Rex and his New York Jets next week.
"As great as today was, we gotta turn the page," Belichick said. "We know what kind of battle that's gonna be."
Along with Talib and Amendola, the Patriots lost linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder) and guard Dan Connolly (head) to injuries. It is not yet known how much time, if any, those players will miss.