Vintage Brady in game's final drive

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Vintage Brady in game's final drive

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady had 2:31 to drive down the field and, at the very least, get into field-goal range.

Starting from their own 20, it wasn't an impossible task. And with Brady leading the way, thinking "touchdown" instead of a game-tying field goal wasn't outrageous.

Especially since Brady was determined to make up for the interception he threw two drives earlier, which led to a 26-yard field goal and a 16-13 Dallas lead with 5:13 left to play in the fourth quarter.

"Mistakes are going to happen in football," said Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez after the game. "And obviously we had a few too many turnovers. But we kept fighting, and it shows our team. You can't leave any time left on the clock. Because we'll keep fighting and winning."

And that they did.

The Patriots had one last opportunity to make something happen. The only concern was, New England's offense hadn't been too pretty all afternoon. The only sense of comfort was, Tom Brady.

And with one timeout left, Brady opened the drive with big passes to Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker, advancing the ball to the 50-yard line at the two-minute warning, while still possessing their lone timeout.

After the two-minute warning, Brady found Welker and running back Danny Woodhead with several passes. he even grabbed a first down of his own with a quarterback sneak on 3rd-and-2.

On 1st-and-10 from the Dallas 14, Brady found Welker over the middle for a 6-yard gain to the 8. The Patriots then used their last timeout to stop the clock with 27 seconds remaining.

"You're down three, so you know you've got to get into field-goal range," said Brady after the game. "And once you get into field-goal range, you're thinking, scoring touchdowns."

On the very next play, Brady found Hernandez in the middle of the end zone to give the Patriots a 20-16 lead after the extra point, with 22 seconds left on the clock.

For the Patriots' quarterback, it was simply a better group of guys stepping up and being on the same page when they needed to.

"It was great protection, a great catch by Aaron," said Brady. "A lot of guys made big plays on that drive, when we needed it. We really kind of squandered some opportunities throughout the game.

"Your margin for error is very, very small," added Brady. "You can't not get the ball in the end zone. So the throws need to be more accurate, the routes need to be better, the protection needs to be better, and the entire offense needs to be better. It's something we work on quite a bit.

"I'd prefer to be up four touchdowns with two minutes left, but that wasn't really the case today, so we just had to keep playing, keep battling, keep fighting, until the clock says zero-zero at the end. And we did that today."

The game-winning drive took 10 plays, and marked the 32nd time in Brady's career that he led the Patriots to a victory following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie. He's now accomplished that feat 26 times in the regular season, and six times in the playoffs.

"Coach Bill Belichick put us through a lot of things, a lot of different situations. That was one of them," said Deion Branch. "And I think all the guys showed a lot of resilience on that drive. Everybody was stepping up and making plays when they were called upon. And, you know, Tom doing his thing."

"When you got a quarterback like Tom, anything can happen, as long as there's time on the clock," said Hernandez after the win. "And he had enough time to get it done.

"We just knew it was time to step up," added Hernandez. "And with the type of players we have, everyone knows we have to step up. And all of us stepped up.

"We just came out to play at the end. We follow Tom's lead, and Tom was out there. We know he's going to put us in the right play at the right time. And all we've got to do is the easy part. Run the route, and he'll put it there."

Valentine will be plunked down in heart of D-line

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Valentine will be plunked down in heart of D-line

FOXBORO – The Patriots used the 96th overall pick – a compensatory pick that came to the Patriots after losing Darrelle Revis – on a very large man. Vincent Valentine, a 6-3, 329-pound defensive tackle from Nebraska who is more space-eater than penetrator.

Though Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio said Valentine has played all over the defensive line including 5-technique (outside shoulder of the tackle), he’ll likely be an early-down, middle of the defensive line player for the Patriots at the outset. How does the team go about getting him on the field?

Currently, they are pretty well-stocked with big bodies. Last year’s first rounder, Malcom Brown, is going to play a lot for a long time. Terrance Knighton, added as a free agent, figures to be a major component of the defensive line. And aging Alan Branch showed in 2015 that he’s still got plenty of plays left in him.

The other 300-plus pound linemen in the mix are Marcus Kuhn, a free agent brought over from the Giants, and Joe Vellano, who’s been with the team for four seasons as an end of the roster player.

Valentine had an injury-plagued final season with the Cornhuskers and will need to tune up his body and conditioning for the NFL. He’s not a project but neither is he a plug-and-play type who can be expected to walk in and make immediate contributions. With the 31-year-old Branch nearing the end, it’s reasonable to expect Valentine to be the successor to him in the Patriots interior rotation when they go heavy on early downs and in short-yardage and goal-line.

Examining possible Patriots fits going into Day 3

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Examining possible Patriots fits going into Day 3

The Patriots have eight picks remaining on the final day of the draft. While they may not use all of those selections -- they currently have 80 players on the roster, leaving them with only two slots for undrafted free agents if they use all of their picks -- they still have plenty of opportunities to take chances on talented athletes Saturday. 

Here's a quick look at some of the best players available after they spent their first four selections on a corner (Cyrus Jones, Alabama, pick No. 60), an offensive lineman (Joe Thuney, North Carolina State, No. 78), a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State, No. 91) and a defensive tackle (Vincent Valentine, Nebraska, No. 96). 

The Patriots have one fourth-round pick, five sixth-round picks and two seventh-rounders remaining.

RUNNING BACK: KENNETH DIXON, LOUISIANA TECH

Listed as one of our top players available after Day 1, Dixon is still hanging around after nearly 100 picks have gone off the board. Perhaps his level of competition at Louisiana Tech has worked against him. Perhaps his fumbling issues have come back to bite him. Perhaps this is simply an indication of how the rest of the league considers this position. Only four backs have been drafted through the first three rounds. 

Other top running backs available: Jordan Howard, Indiana; Devontae Booker, Utah; Paul Perkins, UCLA; Jonathan Williams, Arkansas; Alex Collins, Arkansas. 

RECEIVER: DANIEL BRAVERMAN, WESTERN MICHIGAN

If ever there was a player who stood out as a potential Patriots pick, it would be Braverman. At 5-foot-10, 177 pounds, he is a prototypical slot receiver whose skill set resembles that of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola or Troy Brown. He's very shifty in and out of his breaks, he does a great deal of his work while risking big hits over the middle of the field, he catches just about everything thrown his way, and he churns out yards after the catch with speed and good vision. 

Other top receivers available: Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia; Rashard Higgins, Colorado State; Devon Cajuste, Stanford; Keyarris Garrett, Tulsa; Keenan Reynolds, Navy.

LINEBACKER: JOSH PERRY, OHIO STATE

This Buckeye seems to fit the size profile the Patriots typically like in their receivers at 6-foot-4, 254 pounds. He runs well enough to be able to track ball-carriers from sideline-to-sideline, and he has a ton of experience coming downhill to make big hits in the running game. Perry will need some work before he's a reliable defender in coverage, but on first and second downs he could be a force. 

Other top linebackers available: Scooby Wright III, Arizona; Kentrell Brothers, Missouri; Stephen Weatherly, Vanderbilt; Blake Martinez, Stanford; De'Vondre Campbell, Minnesota. 

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: HASSAN RIDGEWAY, TEXAS

A college teammate of Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown, Ridgeway is considered by many to be more physically talented than Brown was when he declared for the draft. Injuries hurt Ridgeway's productivity last season, and there are some who question his conditioning, but he understands how to be a disruptive force on the interior, both in the running game and in the passing game. If he's in shape and can maintain the level of fitness that will be expected of him as a pro, he could turn into an immediate contributor.

Other top defensive tackles available: Andrew Billings, Baylor; Sheldon Day, Notre Dame; DJ Reader, Clemson; Dean Lowry, Northwestern; Justin Zimmer, Ferris State.

Patriots hatch latest backup plan at QB

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Patriots hatch latest backup plan at QB

Tom Brady needs a Hail Mary at this point to get himself on the field for the first four games of 2016. The Patriots are more aware of that than anyone, so Friday night they grabbed a little security, using a third-round pick on North Carolina State quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

The 6-4, 235-pound Brissett was a two-year starter for the Wolfpack and had 23 touchdowns and five picks in his senior season. He’s lauded for his leadership, has outstanding physical skills and is a tireless worker.

All that said, he’s not going to beat out Jimmy Garoppolo. Brissett isn’t in Foxboro to be the long-term No. 2 in 2016. But if he shows a high level of competency between now and the end of August, the Patriots will likely go into the four-game Brady-less stretch with Garoppolo as the temp starter and Brissett as the temp backup.

When Brady returns, everybody moves back down the ladder again.

But a look at the contracts of Garoppolo and Brady shows that, after 2016, Garoppolo may become expendable. Brady is signed through 2019 and isn’t going anywhere. Garoppolo is up after 2017 and will be a free agent. If Garoppolo plays well enough to impress the rest of the league in his four-game audition, the Patriots could look to deal him prior to the 2017 season.

The return on the former second-rounder isn’t relevant right now. What is relevant is that the Patriots are going to have to carry three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster in 2016: Brady, Garoppolo and Brissett. For a team that’s always churning the end of its roster to get the best players ready for every week’s matchup, the team will have one less roster spot to deal with than it’s had in past seasons.

The only way around carrying Brissett all year on the 53 would be to release him, hope he passes unclaimed through waivers and then sign him to the practice squad. It’s likely someone would claim him. So the Patriots will be working with three quarterbacks on their 53 for 2016. Forecasting, it’s not likely they’d do that two years in a row.

The addition of Brissett is a signal that the team isn’t preparing for life after Brady, but life after Jimmy G.