FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Too bad all those Patriots fans who left Gillette Stadium in disgust when their team was down didn’t wait a minute.
Because that’s all Tom Brady needed.
Fans left in a half-empty stadium roared when the two-time NFL MVP threw the winning touchdown pass with 5 seconds left. They beat the traffic while the Patriots were beating the Saints, 30-27.
Coming off one of his worst games, Brady threw the decisive 17-yard pass to rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins, knocking New Orleans from the unbeaten ranks Sunday.
“Guys made big-time catches,” Brady said. “It was just a great game.”
Slowly but steadily, new pass catchers have made their mark after the Patriots lost their top five receivers from last season’s highest-scoring NFL team. Now he’s throwing to Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola and Austin Collie.
“I have confidence in those guys,” Brady said. “We’re certainly not perfect out there. We’re definitely just grinding.”
Many fans had abandoned hope and left Gillette Stadium by the time the Patriots it out. But at Fenway Park, some 30 miles away, a big cheer went up at Game 2 of the AL championship series between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers when Thompkins jumped for the winning pass.
“Coach Bill said that it might come down to the final seconds,” Thompkins said. “You had to stick with the system. We just had to go out there and fight to the finish.”
The Saints (5-1) had taken a 24-23 lead with 3:29 remaining on Drew Brees’ 34-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills and the extra point, but couldn’t put away New England.
The Patriots (5-1) survived an interception by Keenan Lewis on their first snap after Garrett Hartley’s 39-yard field goal made it 27-23.
Brady started the winning 70-yard drive, with no timeouts, with completions of 23 yards to Julian Edelman, 15 to Collie and 6 to Dobson for a first down at the Saints 26. But he threw two incompletions before connecting with Collie for a 9-yard gain on fourth down and a first down at the 17.
He spiked the ball to stop the clock, then sent his receivers deep.
“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 said.
Thompkins outfought cornerback Jabari Greer in the left side of the end zone.
“That’s something that you’ll replay in your mind for a long time,” Greer said. “We fought hard, we’re resilient, and it happens like that. For it to happen to me, I’ll just have to bear the burden for this week.”
The Patriots were headed for their second straight loss one week after the Cincinnati Bengals beat them 13-6. Brady’s streak of 52 regular-season games with at least one touchdown pass ended in that defeat; Brees holds the NFL record with 54.
Brady completed 25 of 43 passes for 269 yards with one touchdown and one interception. It was the 38th time he’d led the Patriots to victory after trailing or being tied in the fourth quarter. One week earlier, he was just 18 for 38 for 197 yards and a passer rating of 52.2
New England continued the strong defense it’s played all year by holding star tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch for the first time in 46 games, dating back to the middle of his rookie season in 2010. He limped off the field after Kyle Arrington intercepted a pass intended for him, but returned.
“The one thing they do a good job with is they disrupt you at the line of scrimmage really better than anyone,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They do a really good job of getting hands on receivers and tight ends.”
Add Brees: “This one’s difficult because you certainly felt like you had a chance.
Breed completed 17 of 36 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Stevan Ridley ran for two touchdowns for a 17-7 halftime lead.
In the first half, the Patriots controlled the ball against New Orleans, which entered the game leading the NFL in time of possession. The Patriots scored on drives of 80, 66 and 60 yards one week after having just one drive of more than 35 yards in Cincinnati.
The Saints tied it by scoring on their first two possessions of the second half: a 28-yard field goal by Hartley and a 3-yard run by Khiry Robinson.
New England took a 3-0 lead on Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal on the first series of the game. New Orleans took its first lead on Brees’ 3-yard pass to Travaris Cadet, the first run or reception of the season by the running back.
Then Ridley scored twice in a span of six minutes in the second quarter on runs of 1 and 4 yards. On the second touchdown drive, Brady completed his last six passes for 64 yards.
But he saved his best for last.
“What more can you ask out of your leader?” Ridley said. “He put the team on his back and went out there and made the plays we needed to make.”
NOTESD: Collie, signed before the Bengals game, made his first two catches for the Patriots on the final drive. … The Saints held the ball for 28:09, more than six minutes less than their season average. … Patriots CB Aqib Talib, who helped shut down Graham, didn’t return after hurting his hip in the third quarter.