FOXBORO - It should have been a loss, and wasn't. But it still felt like one afterward.
Tom Brady engineered another amazing comeback in his long legacy of them, bringing the Patriots back Sunday from a 26-14 deficit with just 2:39 to play and leading them to a 27-26 triumph over the 4-9 Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium.
But as uplifting as it should have been, there was still the disturbing realization that the Patriots had extended their tendencies for early-game struggles well into third quarter before having to mount their garrison comeback. And, they had to do it without tight end Rob Gronkowski, their most productive and feared offensive weapon beyond Brady, who was injured on a third-quarter reception and may be lost for the season.
"It's always good to come out with a win in spite of everything that happened," Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said in his post-game press conferences, mere moments before telling the assembled media that Gronkowski had been brought to an unspecified hospital for "observation and evaluation" of his injured right knee.
Internet reports that Gronkowski had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament on a hit by the Browns' T.J. Ward at the end of a 21-yard reception with 8:27 left in the quarter remained unconfirmed late Sunday, pending further examination of the injured joint.
"The decision I made was to make a tackle on a big man, and unfortunately he got hurt," Ward said. "If I were to hit him up high, there's a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe.
"Gronk's a big dude, he's not small by any means, it just makes it difficult," he added. "My intention is not to hurt anyone, that's not what this game is about and that's not how I play."
The injury to a player that had brought multiple options back to the Patriots' offense after his six-week exile at the start of the season cast a pall over yet another incredible comeback victory - executed by a 10-3 team that looked as if it couldn't get out of its own way through almost three full quarters of play.
The Patriots didn't register on the scoreboard until 1:37 left in the third quarter, on a 33-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. And it was answered almost immediately when Jason Campbell (29-44, 391 yards, three touchdowns) threw a deep pass to Josh Gordon (seven catches, 151 yards) and he took it 80 yards to a 19-3 lead with 1:25 left in the quarter.
That may have been the prod that the Patriots needed to snap out of their stupor.
Brady's first throw on the subsequent possession was extended to 50 yards by Shane Vereen, the player that seemingly had the exclusive trust of his quarterback down the stretch. Vereen also carried for 16 and 6 yards, the latter for the touchdown, and Brady threw to Julian Edelman for the two-point conversion with six seconds left.
The Patriots mounted a 12-play drive leading to Gostkowski's 200th career field goal, a 50-yarder that cut the deficit to 19-14 with 5:43 left. But the Browns followed with another scoring drive, highlighted by Gordon's 34-yard end-around and a 19-yard throw to him, all leading to Campbell's 4-yard TD throw to tight end Jordan Cameron for a 26-14 lead with 2:39 left.
The Browns, now up by 12, thought that keeping their composure would ensure a win.
"Just keep playing and don't get to high or get too low," said defensive back Jordan Poyer. "You just have to keep playing because it is a long game and it is Tom Brady. He is probably one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. That was just the message."
As bad as he had been in the first half, Brady was every bit the future Hall of Famer when it counted.
He completed seven of nine passes for 80 yards before throwing a 2-yard TD pass to Edelman with 1:01 left, with Gostkowski's kick making it a 26-21 deficit. And, a roughness penalty on Poyer moved the ensuing kickoff to the midfield stripe, which proved crucial to the outcome.
Gostkowski's bouncing kick made it into the welcoming hands of Kyle Arrington at the Browns' 40 - just the 12th onside-kick recovery by the Patriots since 1960 and the first that led to a victory.
With no timeouts left, Brady threw in short order to Danny Amendola for 10 yards, then caught a huge break when rookie defensive back Leon McFadden was called for pass interference in the end zone on a throw to Josh Boyce.
"I didn't feel like there was pass interference," McFadden said, "but all I can do is go back and look at the film and make corrections."
On the next play, Brady easily found Amendola for a 1-yard TD with 31 seconds left. A rush for two by Vereen failed, and the Patriots weren't out of the woods yet; Campbell was able to get his team to the Patriots' 40 with a second left on the clock.
It all came down to Billy Cundiff, the former Baltimore kicker who failed to hit a chip shot field goal in the 2011 AFC title game and sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI. Already gimpy from having a muscle tighten up, Cundiff made his attempt from 58 yards straight and true, but it fell short and under the uprights.
"If I could have that ball the rest of the year for every kick, I would be extremely happy," Cundiff said. "I just know when I looked up. I expected to make it."
And the Patriots, in spite of themselves, continue to travel an improbable course that could land them in the New Jersey Meadowlands in February.
"That's football, that's NFL football there," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "You've got to play all four quarters. We've seen it time and time again how in the end we can come back and we can score points. It's not over until it's over. Fight to the end. Situational football, play it right and every second counts."