FOXBOROUGH — Continuing a streak of faulty first halves and extraordinary comebacks, the Patriots beat the Cleveland Browns 27-26 Sunday night in what I’ll personally term as an instant classic.
Any time you have a successful onside kick recovery — which was the first in Patriots franchise history to lead to a game-winning touchdown — you have to consider where the particular contest in question rests on the pantheon of great wins. In this case, for a team as lauded and trophied up as the Patriots, we’ll just wonder aloud where Sunday’s game ranks in terms of regular season victories.
So far this season, they’ve had a number of compelling candidates, including the team’s thrilling come-from-behind victory over the New Orleans Saints. But that was two months ago. There’s been plenty of excitement since then.
Sunday’s comeback comes on the heels of superb wins over the Denver Broncos (34-31) and Houston Texans (34-31).
While the talent and expectations of the competition has varied, each win has inserted a level of football titillation that only those sensitive to cardiac arrest might disapprove.
It’s just been that kind of season. And Sunday’s game was no different.
With that in mind, here’s my five takeaways:
1. Losing Rob Gronkowski only seemed devastating — Gronkowski’s loss to a leg injury in the third quarter was profound for a number of reasons. There was the instant worry of his health, which is still in question, and then there was the long-term concerns for the Patriots’ offense, which struggled mightily this season without him despite winning five of six games. His presence in the red zone has been the most striking, with the team boosting its touchdown rate from 40.9 percent to 67.9, no doubt because defenders have to account for him.
But on Sunday, the Patriots seemed to find poise in dealing with the aftermath of his dramatic injury. At the time, they were down 12-0 to the Browns. But on the team’s very next offensive series, they marched 68 yards down the field for their first points, a 33-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. On their next series, they took only three plays before Shane Vereen ran in a 6-yard touchdown. The Patriots would go on to score on their next three drives, five in a row in all, to take the game.
After enduring such a devastating injury to one of the team’s integral players, the Patriots flashed what appeared to be the mental composure of a championship contender. There was mettle and there was grit. And even a little luck on their side. That’s got to count for something as the team goes forward.
2. The role falls to James Develin, Matthew Mulligan — Right away, the Patriots needed to find out if they had dependable tight ends that can get the job done with Gronk out. They won’t be asked to perform at his high level of offensive production, but they have to be capable and handle the not-so-glamorous role of blockers and check-down options in the passing game. It appears that Mulligan and Develin are up to the task. The duo have already been primarily used as blockers, but each has shown flashes of their other talents. Develin caught a 31-yard pass and Mulligan added a 15-yard reception.
“Honestly, I’m kind of surprising myself a little bit,” Develin said of his receiving skills. “I haven’t done these things since high school. It’s been kind of fun discovering that as well.”
The two take the loss of Gronkowski seriously, with Mulligan saying he would pray for his teammate. But Gronkowski’s injury provides an opportunity that neither can ignore.
“Having Gronk go out like that in the game was tough,” Develin said. “He’s a huge guy in our offense. But the NFL is such a next-man-up kind of thing and so when my number was called I just knew that I had to go out there and do the job. I’m thankful that our coaches prepare us for any situation, so I felt comfortable going in there and trying to do the thing.”
Patriots fans will have to get comfortable with it, too. The team’s only other experienced tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, is still out with a knee injury.
See all of my takeaways from the game on Boston.com’s Extra Points blog.