FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Down three points. Barely two minutes left. One thought on Tom Brady’s mind.
“You can’t not get the ball in the end zone,” the master of late comebacks said.
That’s where he got it, throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez with 22 seconds left and giving the New England Patriots a 20-16 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
“He’s probably one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever seen, especially from a quarterback standpoint,” Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “There was plenty of time for our offense.
“When it mattered the most, they came up with what we needed.”
It was the 32nd successful comeback of Brady’s career in games the Patriots trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. And it came against a solid defense — ranked fourth in the NFL — that had allowed just one touchdown on the Patriots first nine possessions.
“When you’re playing against a quarterback like Tom Brady, he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “So you have to try to make it hard on him.”
Dallas, coming off a bye week, did that for most of the day, sacking him three times and intercepting two passes. But on the final 80-yard drive that started with 2:31 left, Brady completed eight of nine passes for 78 yards.
“We prepare hard for that situation every week and when it came up this week, it’s good to get the ball in the end zone,” Brady said. “I’d prefer to be up four touchdowns with two minutes left, but it just wasn’t the case.”
New England (5-1) won despite its first two lost fumbles of the season. Brady finished the game 27 of 41 for 289 yards with two touchdowns.
Dallas (2-3) ended a five-game road winning streak after a bye despite coming back from a 13-3 deficit midway through the second quarter.
Tony Romo was 27 of 41 for 317 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his first game since a 34-30 loss to the Detroit Lions in which the Cowboys squandered a 24-point, third-quarter lead and Romo threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
The Cowboys have lost two games by four points and one by three.
“This team is continuing to grow and get better,” Romo said. “We just need to finish a game like today and we will I think.”
Dan Bailey’s 26-yard field goal, his third of the game, had broken a 13-13 tie with 5:13 left. After the Patriots punted, the Cowboys were content to run the ball — three rushes for 5 yards, plus a 5-yard penalty — and punted right back.
“You have to run the ball in that situation because of the time situation,” said Garrett, who trusted his defense to keep stopping the Patriots if it had to. “It’s one of the best offenses in the league. You’re challenging your defense, no doubt about it.”
Wes Welker, who entered the game as the NFL leader with 45 catches and 740 yards receiving, was held to six for 45, but three of those catches, covering 21 yards, came in the go-ahead drive. The last one covered 6 yards over the middle, putting the ball at the 8.
Then Brady found Hernandez in one-on-one coverage.
“I had an in route and (Rob) Gronkowski had an out route and he’s a great player so he drew the safety’s attention,” Hernandez said. “I came around and Tom made a great throw and I just had to make the catch.”
Until the final drive, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was headed for his second straight strong game against the Patriots.
He held that job with Cleveland when the Browns beat the Patriots 34-14 last Nov. 7. Since then, the Patriots had scored at least 30 points in 13 consecutive games. That streak ended Sunday, but New England still won.
“This is probably, as a whole, one of our worst performances as an offense,” Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch said. “It’s times like this when we show what we’re made of — that last drive.”
The regular-season win was the Patriots’ 20th straight at home and Brady’s 31st in a row at Gillette Stadium.
“When it comes to crunch time, he is at his best,” Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said.
The Patriots took a 3-0 lead on their first possession on a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. The Cowboys tied it on Bailey’s 48-yard field goal after Terence Newman intercepted a pass that was tipped by defensive end Kenyon Coleman.
New England turned the ball over again on the kickoff after the field goal when Gerald Sensabaugh recovered a fumble by Matthew Slater. But Dallas gave the ball right back five plays later when Tashard Choice fumbled and Gerard Warren recovered.
The Patriots capitalized with a 26-yard field goal by Gostkowski with 12:07 left in the half for a 6-3 lead. They made it 13-3 on their next possession on a 5-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Welker. Officials ruled initially that Welker had gone out of bounds as he reached the ball out toward the goal line but that was overturned on video review.
That put Brady into eighth place in NFL history with 276 touchdown passes, one more than Vinny Testaverde.
Dallas cut the lead to 13-10 at halftime on Romo’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten with 33 seconds left.
The Cowboys tied it on Bailey’s 22-yard field goal with 5:50 remaining in the third quarter.
Notes: Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Brady have won 116 regular-season games together, tying Miami’s Don Shula and Dan Marino for most in NFL history. … DeMarcus Ware had two sacks for Dallas, giving him seven in five games this season. … The teams met for the 11th time with the Patriots winning their fourth in a row after losing the first seven.
Giants 27, Bills 24
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 104 yards and a career-best three touchdowns and Lawrence Tynes kicked a go-ahead 23-yard field goal with 1:32 remaining for New York.
Bradshaw scored on three 1-yard runs and had a 30-yard run to help set up Tynes’ winner as the Giants (4-2) rebounded from a bad loss to Seattle last weekend by limiting the high-scoring Bills (4-2) to seven second-half points.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (21 of 30 for 244 yards) threw touchdown passes of 60 yards to Naaman Roosevelt and 9 yards to Stevie Johnson, but his final attempt was batted down by Jason Pierre-Paul on a fourth-and-5 from the Bills 25 to preserve the win.
Fitzpatrick also was intercepted twice by Corey Webster, with the last starting the possession that led to the winning kick.
49ers 25, Lions 19
DETROIT — Alex Smith’s fourth-down, 6-yard pass to Delanie Walker gave San Francisco the go-ahead touchdown with 1:51 left, lifting the 49ers to a 25-19 win over the previously unbeaten Detroit Lions.
The play stood after video review.
Detroit had a chance to drive for a tying field goal or a go-ahead TD, but couldn’t get a first down against a swarming defense that hit and confused quarterback Matthew Stafford from the start.
David Akers gave San Francisco (5-1) a six-point lead with 1:02 to go with a 37-yard field goal.
The Lions (5-1) had one last shot and came up woefully short. Then San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and Detroit coach Jim Schwartz had to be separated on the field after the game. Harbaugh seemed to say something that fired up Schwartz, and they bumped into each other on the field.
Packers 24, Rams 3
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdowns, including a career-long 93-yarder to Jordy Nelson, and Green Bay now stands as the NFL’s only undefeated team.
Rodgers threw for 310 yards for the Packers (6-0). The Lions were the only other unbeaten team entering the day, but lost to the 49ers.
James Jones and Donald Driver also caught touchdowns from Rodgers, although the Packers offense hit a lull and didn’t score in the second half.
Sam Bradford was 28 of 44 for 321 yards with an interception for the winless Rams (0-5), who were coming off their bye week.
Rams running back Steven Jackson had 18 carries for 96 yards.
Rodgers did throw his third interception of the season, a tipped ball in the fourth quarter.
Raiders 24, Browns 17
OAKLAND, Calif. — Jacoby Ford returned a kickoff 101 yards and Kevin Boss caught a 35-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal to lead Oakland in its first home game since the death of longtime owner Al Davis.
It was an emotional day with many old-time Raiders coming back to honor Davis, the man who had been the face of the franchise for nearly a half-century before dying Oct. 8 of an undisclosed illness at age 82.
The most poignant moment came during a halftime ceremony with dozens of former players standing in a circle around the Raiders emblem at midfield. Super Bowl-winning coach John Madden lit a caldron on the plaza level in the corner of the stadium.
On a day full of tributes, the one Davis would have appreciated most is the one on the scoreboard as the Raiders (4-2) beat the Browns (2-3).
Ravens 29, Texans 14
BALTIMORE — Joe Flacco threw for 305 yards and ran for a score, Billy Cundiff kicked five field goals for Baltimore (4-1).
The Ravens did just enough on defense to earn their third straight win. Baltimore held Houston scoreless over the final 21 minutes and limited standout running back Arian Foster to 49 yards on 15 attempts.
Flacco had two turnovers, but he also had completions of 51 yards and 56 yards to put Cundiff in position to score. Cundiff connected from 43, 48, 25, 33 and 40 yards to tie a Ravens record for field goals in a game.
Flacco completed 20 of 33 passes and Anquan Boldin had eight catches for 132 yards.
Even though the Texans (3-3) were without wide receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Mario Williams, they trailed only 19-14 until a 4-yard touchdown run by Ricky Williams with 4:01 left.
Buccaneers 26, Saints 20
TAMPA, Fla. — Josh Freeman threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns and Earnest Graham rushed for 109 yards in place of injured starter LeGarrette Blount.
The win pulled the Bucs (4-2) into a first place tie with the Saints in the NFC South and snapped New Orleans’ four-game winning streak.
The Saints had a chance to take the lead late, but quarterback Drew Brees was intercepted in the end zone on a fourth-down pass.
Brees became the first passer with four consecutive 350-yard games, but also threw three interceptions.
Tampa’s defense also held New Orleans under 30 points for only the second time this season and shut down New Orleans’ rushing attack.
Eagles 20, Redskins 13
LANDOVER, Md. — Michael Vick threw for 237 yards and a touchdown, Kurt Coleman had three interceptions and Philadelphia snapped a four-game losing streak.
The Eagles raced to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter and held on to beat the Redskins for the 10th time in 12 tries at Washington.
LeSean McCoy rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown as Philadelphia improved to 2-4 and at last started to resemble — at least somewhat — the team picked to win the NFC East.
The Redskins dropped to 3-2.
Washington’s Rex Grossman was benched after throwing his fourth interception late in the third quarter. He was replaced by John Beck, who made his first appearance since 2007 and led the Redskins’ only touchdown drive.
Bengals 27, Colts 17
CINCINNATI — Nate Clements blocked a late field goal try that would have tied the game, and Carlos Dunlap returned a Colts fumble 35 yards for the clinching score to Indianapolis winless after six games.
The Bengals (4-2) matched their victory total from last season and ended a seven-game losing streak against the Colts, who had never lost to Cincinnati with Peyton Manning at quarterback. Manning was on the sideline again Sunday, watching helplessly as the Colts fell to 0-6 for the fifth time in franchise history.
Curtis Painter rallied Indy from a 20-7 deficit in the second half, getting the Colts in range for Adam Vinatieri’s 52-yard field goal try to tie with 5:38 left. Clements swatted it away.
After the Bengals missed a field goal, Pierre Garcon was stripped of the ball after a reception and Dunlap ran it back to finish it off.