FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Until 59:55 was gone in Sunday's Patriots-Saints game, a notion had settled around New England that Tom Brady was no longer Tom Brady. The sense rattled uneasily through the canyon of Gillette Stadium as his passes went wide and fell short. A desperate late-game shot was intercepted and as the clock ticked down, the fans did something fans would never dream of doing in a fourth quarter that included Brady. They left.
Until 59:55 was gone in Sunday's Patriots-Saints game, Tom Brady was unable to make magic with a roster of names that were not Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez. He had gone nearly two full games without a touchdown pass and it seemed Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson weren't going to help him do that.
Until 59:55 was gone in Sunday's Patriots-Saints game, it appeared the faithful had lost hope. The parking lots behind the north arch were filled with brake lights. The concourses were filled with fans wearing his jersey bearing his familiar No. 12. A once-loud stadium was quiet.
Then came a roar that spilled out of the stands and across the thousands who had given up hope.
Then came so many bodies bouncing up and down in the empty stadium aisles.
Then came the Patriots leaping on their sideline like they had won the Super Bowl. And Tom Brady watched his pass settle into Thompkins' hands in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown and smiled at the score that ultimately gave the Patriots a 30-27 victory. Suddenly everything was as it has always been.
Even as the names change with frightening rapidity around here, a single constant remains: the Patriots do not doubt their quarterback. None of the offensive players are left from Brady's Super Bowl title teams. Many of the men he throws to now were children when he beat the St. Louis Rams that long ago night in New Orleans. Few of the key offensive players were on his last Super Bowl team which was just two years ago. But they have learned to believe because that's what everyone before them did.
"We have No. 12," receiver Austin Collie said Sunday night in an empty Patriots locker room.
Collie has been with the Patriots for 10 days. But for years he stood on another sideline watching disaster fly from Brady's right hand, delivering touchdowns that broke the heart of his Indianapolis Colts. He knew what fourth quarters and ticking game clocks meant with Brady on the field. And so with time precious and the Patriots seemingly doomed, Collie listened as Brady shouted, "Be ready!" to he and the other receivers. He had played all of one snap in Sunday's game before the final drive that started on New England's 30 with 1:13 left.
Somehow he understood Brady would find him.
Twice Brady did. The first came on the drive's second play – an inside route that went for 15 yards and a first down. The second – more important – was on another inside route on a fourth-and-4 on the Saints' 26 that brought a first down and a chance to win the game.
"Well we had everybody going to the end zone and [Thompkins] kind of snuck into the corner and I put it up there for him and he came down and made a great catch," Brady later said, as if he was talking about Welker or Randy Moss or Deion Branch instead of a 25-year-old kid from Cincinnati with 18 catches to his NFL life.
But this is why the Patriots continue to believe even as much of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire wavered. Their quarterback won't let them doubt. This has been the most trying season of his career. Gronkowski's availability is a daily drama. His other tight end, Aaron Hernandez is in jail and is never coming back. His beloved Welker is in Denver. And Welker's designated replacement, Danny Amendola, is a fierce battler whose fire keeps getting him hurt.
On Sunday, Brady lost Amendola again when the receiver took a blow to the head and wobbled to the sideline. He's making do with Julian Edelman and a group of players few football fans had ever heard of before this year. Somehow he is making it work.
He talked a lot about "grinding" on Sunday night. He said the word several times and it is the perfect description of a season that lacks the prettiness of some of his other Patriots offenses. Each game has been a survival. Last week, New England lost to the Cincinnati Bengals in a game so ugly many wondered if Brady could salvage the season. He threw for just 197 yards that day as the Patriots scored only six points.
But he grinded all week. He grinded through the game against the Saints, who have a much better team than the Patriots. He grinded through a fourth-quarter interception and a flimsy four-and-out that appeared to be the Pats' last gasp.
Then given one last chance he delivered.
"We are 5-1," he said beaming.
Yet even he knew the 5-1 has come hard.
"I think no matter how you've played to that point, you have a situation: you have one timeout, two timeouts, three timeouts, you're backed up," he said. "Regardless of what happens over the course of the game, you have a chance. That's what football is all about."
A whole new group of Patriots players are learning this from him, just like the dozens who held the Super Bowl trophies with him.
As he headed toward the stadium exit on Sunday a man stopped him. He was a friend of Tom Martinez, the man Brady considers a mentor and who died in 2012.
Brady stopped. His expression softened.
"He was a great man," Brady said.
And yet on this night he could have been talking about himself.