FOXBORO -- You'd think a potential season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski would cast a shadow over anything that happened in Sunday's Patriots-Browns game.
Instead, Tom Brady stepped forward.
The loss of Gronk -- who was carted off the field in the third quarter with what's being reported as a serious knee injury -- may prove to be the blow from which the 2013 Patriots can't recover. But on this day, somehow, he became an afterthought, at least for a little while.
How, you ask? By Brady leading the Patriots -- who fell behind on the Browns' first possession and trailed every step of the way -- to two touchdowns in the final 64 seconds, erasing a 26-14 deficit and giving them an incredible 27-26 victory over Cleveland.
"That was awesome," said Brady. "That was awesome. What a game . . . Very sweet."
"It's probably all been said before, but he did it again," said coach Bill Belichick. "That's what it says: He did it again.
"And a lot of other guys," he was quick to add. "He had a lot of help out there."
Not for the first three quarters, he didn't. The Pats' offense was completely stymied in the first half, managing only 129 yards, and a pair of Billy Cundiff field goals had Cleveland in front by 6-0. There was nothing new about that -- New England had been outscored 51-10 in the first two quarters of its last three games -- but things didn't get better at the start of the second half. A 40-yard touchdown pass from Jason Campbell to Gary Barnidge increased the lead to 12-0 and then, after Stephen Gostkowski got the Pats on the board with a 33-yard field goal, Campbell hit Josh Gordon on a slant over the middle that Gordon, exploiting the lack of deep help in the secondary, turned into an 80-yard TD play and a 19-3 lead with 1:25 to go in the period.
The atmosphere at Gillette Stadium was funereal, what with Gronkowski having gone down on the drive before the field goal. A Gronk-less offense seemed unlikely to roar back to life after sputtering for 44 minutes.
But that's not how they felt on the New England sideline.
"We practice those situations all the time," said Julian Edelman, "and guys are calm in the huddle and hungry to make a play. [Brady] is pretty calm, cool and collected and we go with the flow of what we have to do to execute."
The comeback began immediately, with Brady and Shane Vereen combining for the longest New England play from scrimmage -- a 50-yard pass-and-run -- that moved the ball from the Patriots 28 to the Browns 22. Brady then hit Vereen with a 16-yard pass to the 6, and Vereen ran it in from there on the next play. Brady found Edelman for a two-point conversion that made the score 19-11, and there were still six seconds left in the third quarter.
Gostkowski narrowed Cleveland's lead to 19-14 with a 50-yard field goal with 5:42 remaining, but the Browns appeared to put it out of reach with an 8-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a four-yard TD pass from Campbell to Jordan Camerin with 2:43 left. That made it 26-14 and put the Patriots, who had only one time out, needing two scores.
"[The] attitude of our team [is] we're not done until the clock says zero," said Vereen. "Down but never out. When you've got Tom Brady as your quarterback, you always have a shot."
The Pats took possession on their own 18 with 2:35 to play. Passing on every play, Brady got them to the 2 with 1:10 left, They tried to fool the Browns with a running play at that point, but Vereen was stuffed for no gain and New England had to use its final time out. Brady found Edelman in the back corner of the end zone for the touchdown on the next play, narrowing the gap to 26-21, and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Jordan Poyer, who leveled Edelman after the catch, enabled Gostkowski to attempt the inevitable onside kick from the 50.
And it worked. Gostkowski pushed it forward and Fozzy Whittaker attempted to jump on the ball before it went 10 yards. But it caromed off him to Kyle Arrington, who recovered on the Cleveland 40.
"You know, we work on that all the time," said Brady, "and if it [works] once a year, great."
He had to drive the team 40 yards in a minute with no time outs. But his task got a whole lot easier when, after a 10-yard completion to Danny Amendola, the Browns' Leon McFadden was called for pass interference on a deep throw to Josh Boyce in the end zone, setting up the Patriots on the 1-yard line with 35 seconds left.
On the next play, Brady completed a pass to Amendola in the right flat for a TD, and the comeback -- amazingly -- was complete.
The Browns had one last shot and Campbell got them to the Pats' 40, but Cundiff was short with a 58-yard field-goal attempt and the Pats had their victory.
"We had to make just about every play that we made at the end today, and fortunately we did," said Belichick. "Usually when you put yourself in that situation, it doesn't always happen that way. One little thing goes wrong and it doesn't work out.
"But fortunately it did today."