Nearly everything had to go right for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to pull off their latest comeback.
Just about everything did.
Brady threw two touchdown passes and the Cleveland Browns committed two critical penalties in the final 61 seconds as the Patriots stormed to a 27-26 victory on Sunday.
"That was awesome," Brady said, "pretty sweet."
The improbable rally salvaged a potentially costly day for the Patriots (10-3), who lost star tight end Rob Gronkowski to a suspected torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the third quarter. He is expected to undergo an MRI on Monday.
New England fell behind 19-3 when Jason Campbell connected with Josh Gordon for an 80-yard touchdown late in the third. Campbell’s third scoring pass of the day, a 4-yarder to Jordan Cameron with 2:39 left in the game, made it 26-14.
That’s when Brady engineered the impressive comeback that kept the Patriots in front in the race for the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC. Had New England lost, Cincinnati would have moved into the second position.
"How many times has he done that in his career?" Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said after his team’s seventh loss in eight games. "We had our opportunity and we weren’t able to close the game out how we wanted to."
Brady threw a 2-yard scoring pass to Julian Edelman with 1:01 left and a 1-yarder to Danny Amendola with 31 seconds remaining.
The Browns (4-9) had one last chance, but Billy Cundiff missed a 58-yard field goal attempt on the final play.
"We had to make just about every play that we made at the end today," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "and, fortunately, we did."
The Patriots trailed at intermission for the fourth consecutive game and have won three of them. But this one may have been the toughest.
They cut the deficit to 26-21 on Edelman’s touchdown. A 15-yard penalty against the Browns for unnecessary roughness on Edelman allowed the Patriots to kick off from the 50-yard line, rather than their 35.
Those 15 yards became very significant when Kyle Arrington recovered the onside kick at the Cleveland 40. It was the first time since Jan. 1, 1995, in an AFC playoff game that the Patriots had recovered an onside kick. That also came against the Browns, who were coached by Belichick. And Belichick also won that game, 20-13.
Arrington recovered the kick after Cleveland’s Fozzy Whitaker touched, but couldn’t control, the ball.
"The ball’s cold, so (it’s) a little slippery for a guy," Arrington said. "Fortunately, it hit one of their guys first and I was just able to jump on it."
Brady began the winning drive with a 10-yard pass to Amendola. Then Leon McFadden was penalized for defensive pass interference against Josh Boyce in the end zone, putting the ball at the 1. McFadden and Chudzinski disagreed with the call.
"I felt like those two were both jostling for the ball," Chudzinski said. "It really doesn’t matter what I think."
After Amendola’s touchdown, the Browns moved to the Patriots 40 with 1 second left, but Cundiff’s kick came up short.
"I have never been a part of a game like this," Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. "This one hurts for real."
The late comeback ruined another brilliant game by Gordon, who had seven catches for 151 yards. It was the third time in four weeks that he scored on pass plays of more than 70 yards.
Gordon set an NFL record of 774 yards receiving in four consecutive games. Calvin Johnson set the previous mark of 746 this season. Gordon also set a single-season team record for yards receiving with 1,400. Braylon Edwards established the previous mark of 1,289 in 2007.
Gronkowski was hurt when hit by Cleveland safety T.J. Ward after a 21-yard completion. He missed the first six games of the season recovering from offseason surgeries on his left forearm and back. In his six full games after returning, he led NFL tight ends with 37 catches and 560 yards receiving.
"If I would have hit him up high, there’s a chance I would get fined and all that other stuff. So, I’m just being safe," Ward said. "It’s kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place."
NOTES:The Patriots trailed 6-0 at halftime on field goals of 43 and 37 yards by Cundiff. … Brady completed 32 of 52 passes for 418 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. … Campbell, who missed Cleveland’s previous game with a concussion, was 29 for 44 for 391 yards. … Patriots running back Shane Vereen caught 12 passes for 153 yards. He also scored on a 6-yard run.