FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- WITH 99 seconds left to play at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, things seemed to be on the cusp of disaster for a Patriots team that has been playing with fire for a month now, and finally looked as though it was going to get burned.
After failing to score in the first half, and allowing two Jason Campbell touchdown passes in the second, the Pats trailed by 12 and had just one timeout. Along the way, star tight end Rob Gronkowski had been lost for the day — and likely the season — with what is reportedly a torn ACL in his right knee. And, meanwhile, the Bengals had just beaten the Colts.
If everything had been decided there, the Patriots would've lost to a team that had dropped six of seven, would've lost Tom Brady's most important weapon, and would've lost their grip on a first-round bye in the forthcoming AFC tournament.
But as these Patriots have proven throughout this season — and proved once more Sunday — games aren't decided with 99 seconds still on the clock. Or even with one second still on the clock.
And so with the latest and maybe most remarkable in a lengthening string of incredible outcomes, the Patriots ultimately left their home stadium knowing they'd need to deal with yet another major injury to an important player — though they do so at 10-3, now only a win away from the AFC East title, still in control of the AFC's No. 2 seed, and just a Broncos' slip-up from moving into a position where they would have the inside track on home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs after stealing a 27-26 triumph from the Browns by scoring twice in the final 1:04 of play.
"That's the attitude of our team," said Shane Vereen, who set team records for catches (12) and receiving yards (153) by a running back. "We're not done until the clock says zero. Down, but never out. When you've got Tom as your quarterback, you know you've always got a shot."
That's been evident throughout the season, and particularly over the past two months, when the Patriots have come back to beat the Saints with five seconds to go, rallied from halftime deficits of 17-3 and 24-0 to defeat the Dolphins and Broncos, and last week erased a fourth-quarter disadvantage against the Texans.
Sunday's win was even wilder, considering it required the Patriots to not only score touchdowns on passes to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, but in between they also had to recover an onside kick — which is something they hadn't done as a franchise since 1995, and something they'd only once ever done in a game they went on to win. That came in 1964, and the recovery came in the first half of a contest the Pats eventually claimed, 26-10.
So when Bill Belichick came striding through his locker room all smiles after the game, stopping for a hug from defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, then another from Brady, he certainly had plenty of reason to be pleased in the way the day finished.
"We're excited to win," said the coach. "Absolutely, we're excited to win. It's hard to win in this league. Cleveland is a good football team and they played well today. We're definitely excited to win."
That excitement was evident among his players, too, who were generally proud of their resilience, and their mental toughness, and their ability to execute when opportunity arose in the final minutes. But at the same time that satisfaction seemed tempered by the status of Gronkowski — who left the field on a stretcher, went to the hospital, and will undergo an MRI today — as well as the acknowledgment that there remains plenty of work to be done, plenty of improvements to be made, and plenty of problems that need to be corrected.
For the fourth straight week, the Patriots started out painfully slowly on offense, getting shut out before the half for a second straight home game. They clawed their way back within five points, then allowed Josh Gordon to go 80 yards with a slant on the first-play of the subsequent series. They later let the Browns go ahead by 12 at the end of an impressive march with 2:39 to go.
"If you look at us play, it's not one thing that, if we fix that, we'll be good," safety Devin McCourty said. "The biggest thing that we continue to talk about is consistency. Throughout the game we have some good stops, we string some series together, some plays together — but it's being consistent on every down. If we can do that, I think we'll be good."
They struggled to do that Sunday, and, so, we still don't know just how good this team really is. If anyone was looking for New England to validate itself against Cleveland, or to reestablish its fundamental style of play, they probably come away as uncertain as ever about what degree of contender this team really is because of the conflict between the end result and the rest of the game. With three weeks to go, it's still plenty unclear where these Patriots sit on the NFL landscape.
But there's no doubt, even without Gronkowski, they're sitting prettier than it looked like they would be with 99 seconds to play Sunday.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.