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The Top 20 Patriots Moments of 2013: Number 3

Our offseason countdown continues with the Number 3 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2013.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

It seems that every year, the New England Patriots come into a game the heavy favorites and are almost a lock to chalk up another win only to completely crap the bed and play some of their worst football of the year. And it would also seem that, when the Pats do decide to lay an egg, they do it against the Cleveland Browns as much as any other team. Maybe they take the Browns too lightly. Maybe there is just some sort of Joe Frasier-esque juju that the Browns bring to New England. Maybe they just feel bad for the city of Cleveland as a whole. But whatever the reason, the Browns just aren't a team the Patriots have been able to bowl over as of late. As we enter into the Top 3 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2013, we revisit a game that should have been forgettable, was almost a disaster, but ended up being spectacular.

Even if it was just the Browns.

The list so far:

20. The New England Patriots sign Tim Tebow.
19. Aaron Dobson and Aqib Talib help the Patriots lock up a sloppy home opener against the New York Jets.
18. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez depart for Denver and jail, respectively.
17. Michael Hoomanawanui makes a huge one-handed TD grab just before halftime against the Miami Dolphins.
16. The Patriots lose in OT to the Jets, courtesy of an interesting new rule
15. James Develin bowls over the entire Texans defensive line for a rushing touchdown.
14. Tom Brady leads a 4th quarter comeback drive against the Bills to win the 2013 season opener.
13. Kenbrell Thompkins emerges as a receiving threat with a two touchdown day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
12. A highly questionable non-PI call costs the Patriots a Monday Night Football game against the Carolina Panthers.
11. Devin McCourty and Marquice Cole team up for a volleyball-style interception against the Miami Dolphins.
10. New England engineers a huge second half comeback against the Miami Dolphins.
9. Aqib Talib shuts down Julio Jones and Roddy White in a primetime matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
8. Shane Vereen has 100+ rushing yards and 58 yards receiving on a broken arm in a comeback win against the Buffalo Bills.
7. The Patriots put up 55 points in their historic beatdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
6. LeGarrette Blount goes beast mode against the Buffalo Bills to lock up the 2 seed in the AFC.
5. The Patriots travel to Baltimore and obliterate the Baltimore Ravens.
4. LeGarrette Blount's 4 touchdown day lifts the Patriots past the Colts in the AFC Divisional round.

Home stretch now, folks.

3. New England scores two touchdowns in the final two minutes to come back against the Cleveland Browns.

When the Cleveland Browns came to Gillette for a Week 14 matchup against the Patriots, most fans breathed a sigh of relief. The past three weeks of games had seen Pats lose to the Panthers on a controversial non-call in the end zone, generate a massive comeback against the Broncos, and squeak by a Texans team in Houston to rattle off three of the most stressful games in recent memory. With the Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills coming up to close out the season, Cleveland represented a nice break and a relatively easy win that should help generate some more confidence to end the year.

Of course, this is the Patriots we're talking about, and for some reason or other, it's games like this one that always seem to cause the most trouble.

Right from the opening kickoff, absolutely nothing went right for the Patriots. Cleveland scored a field goal on their very first drive, and New England answered with a three and out. Cleveland engineered a long drive, the Patriots punted again. Cleveland scored another field goal, and once again New England couldn't get anything going. Brady was inaccurate, receivers were dropping passes, and the running backs couldn't get anything going. When the first half ended and the Patriots were only down 6-0, I'm sure that most fans felt relieved; the team had just played a godawful half of football, but they were down by less than a touchdown and it was time to make some adjustments. The defense was playing well - but then again, the Jason Campbell-led Browns didn't exactly scream "offensive powerhouse." The offense needed to get something going so everyone could start to relax.

The second half started out well enough; New England started with the ball, and generated three first downs on three consecutive plays, all through the air. Then, of course, the drive completely stalled, and once again Ryan Allen earned his paycheck. Cleveland needed only five plays to drive 73 yards, with Jordan Cameron making a huge grab followed by a 40 yard strike to Gary Barnidge for the touchdown. Cleveland wouldn't convert a two-point attempt, but the damage was done. Browns 13, Patriots 0.

Needing to answer back, the Patriots decided that they were going to establish the run and start controlling the clock. Stevan Ridley began running well, with three straight runs to move the chains and set up the playaction. Of course, since things were finally starting to go right for the Patriots, it was time for things to start going wrong again.

Very, very wrong.

In what might perhaps go down as the worst consecutive plays in Patriots history, New England lost both their best offensive weapon and possession of the football on back-to-back plays. The first, a Brady-to-Gronkowski strike down the left sideline, saw T.J. Ward take Gronk out at the knees and completely tear his ACL. As he was carted off the field, clutching his leg and looking as frustrated as it gets, almost every fan in Patriots Nation knew - at some level - that New England's season may have just left the field as well. Gronk was yet another injury to a key piece of the team, and all that Tommy B had left was a bunch of rookies, a receiver with an injury history, and a converted college quarterback.

On the very next play, Brady was strip-sacked by Paul Kruger, and the Browns recovered. What little wind that was left in Gillette stadium completely went, and tens of thousands of Foxboro faithful sat in stunned silence (as opposed to the regular silence they bring to the rest of the games). If Cleveland scored on this possession, there just might not be any coming back from that.

Luckily, the defense held again and was able to force a punt. And amazingly, New England was able to score on their next drive, marching 68 yards to score a field goal. It took almost three full quarters, but the Pats were on the board. And only down 10, there was still time to get back in this game. Maybe they would rally around Gronk's injury and not let up another point for the rest of the game.

Or maybe for the rest of the time it takes Cleveland to set up at the 20 after a touchback. Campbell's first throw was an 80 yard catch and run by Josh Gordon that left Aqib Talib completely in the dust, reggravated his hip, and put the Browns up 19-3. New England finally got something going, and Cleveland answered right back.

The Patriots would finally get in the end zone on their next drive, set up by a beautiful 50 yard bomb to Shane Vereen. They would also convert the two point conversion to bring the game to 19-11. Now down by only 8, the Patriots were a touchdown away from tying it. Unfortunately, they were only able to generate three points on their next drive, which stalled at the Cleveland 32. However, down five with over six minutes still to play, there was still the opportunity for a go-ahead touchdown. The defense just needed to keep doing what it had been doing and limiting Cleveland's opportunities.

Instead, the Browns put together an 8 play, 80 yard drive that inducted Jason Campbell into the Patriots Opposing QB Hall of Fame, as he was not only able to put what was seemingly the game-icing points on the board, he was also able to do what so, so many QBs have done before him: pick up 19 yards on a 3rd and 17. A few plays later, and Jordan Cameron was in the end zone for the score. Browns 26, Patriots 14. 2:39 left to play.

I imagine that a lot of fans turned off the TV at that point in disgust. New England had just dropped a game, at home, to a Cleveland team that had absolutely no business beating them, and almost certainly relinquished their hold of the 1 seed in the AFC. Why would anyone want to watch the end of this game?

I'll tell you why: Tom Brady.

No quarterback in the NFL is better at generating comeback drives, and if any team had a chance of coming back, it was New England. Starting from their own 18, Tommy B went 82 yards in 1:38, hitting nobody but Edelman and Vereen the entire way. The drive was 11 plays, and Brady got yards any way that he could. The final play of the drive was a short slant over the middle to Edelman to bring the Patriots to within 6. An uneccessary roughness call would give New England an extra 15 yards on the kickoff, which had to be an onside kick if they were to have any shot at the impossible.

On the kick, the Patriots lined up with the unit evenly distributed across the field, which prevented Cleveland from stacking any of their hands team in once specific spot. Gostkowski opted to kick it straight down the middle, where it bobbled erratically towards the 40 yard line - should any member of the Patriots touch it before that point, it was game over. Just as the Browns were about to fall on it, Gostkowski channeled his inner Kamikaze pilot, sliding directly into the fray and disrupting everyone's concentration. It bounced off a Browns player, hit the turf, and Kyle Arrington was able to fall on it. 1st and 10 New England at the Cleveland 40. Just over a minute left. No timeouts.

For Brady, that's an eternity.

His first pass was a 10 yard strike to Amendola, and the Patriots rushed to the line. Brady quickly snapped the ball and launched a ball down the right sideline for Josh Boyce, who was unable to come down with it in the end zone. However, a flag on the play indicated that Defensive Pass Interference occurred in the end zone, giving the Patriots the ball on the one yard line with 30 seconds left.

[Was the Boyce call really Pass Interference? Honestly, I have absolutely no clue. There was definitely contact, but I have seen flags thrown for much less and I have seen no laundry for significantly more. I have watched that play many times since then and I couldn't for the life of me tell anyone with any confidence what constituted DPI in 2013. Something absolutely needs to be done about that, as the most game-changing call in the entire game 100% CAN NOT be the most subjective as well. Too many games have been won and lost on calls, or non-calls, that should have gone the other way. Fix it, Goodell. End rant.]

New England's very next play resulted in a score. Brady came out in shotgun with Vereen lined up to his left, Boyce alone on the left sideline, and Edelman alone on the right. Danny Amendola motioned from the right slot across the line, and then back to just behind the tight end. At the snap, the entire line moved to the right, Brady in tow, where he hit a flooding Amendola right at the goal line. Danny dove in for the score. Patriots 27-Browns 21. A two point conversion failed, meaning that all Cleveland needed was a field goal to win it.

And it was a field goal they almost got. Campbell was able to gain 40 yards on just four plays to bring Cleveland to the New England 40.  Billy Cundiff could win the game with a 57 yard field goal. Luckily, the kick was short, and the Patriots won the game. It wasn't short by much, and it was right down the middle, but ultimately Cundiff couldn't get the push he needed, and Tommy B had yet another amazing comeback on his resume.

It's never good when you have to pull off a miracle to beat an inferior team at home; this game should have been a cakewalk, and it wasn't. But you know what? There is no such thing as an easy game in the NFL, and on any given Sunday any team can win; it's what makes football so great. And the bottom line is that, during a day where pretty much nothing went right for the Patriots, they were able to band together, overcome adversity, and once again reach 10 wins in a season. To be down by12 points with less than two minutes to play in a game where you couldn't get anything going and you lost your all-star tight end is enough to make most teams fold - but not the 2013 Patriots. They weathered the storm, took the blows, circled the wagons, and came back to win the game. I feel like I have said this over and over throughout this series, but once again Tom Brady put the team on his back and the mental toughness exhibited by this squad was on full display. To take fans from the absolute depths of despair - losing at home, losing to the Browns, losing the inside track on the 1 seed, and losing Gronk - to the pinnacle of elation by engineering a comeback like that is everything that the 2013 Patriots stood for. Perpetually down, never out, and always - always always ALWAYS - going to fight to the very end. I mentioned in my Fan Notes the day after this game that this one gave me the feeling that this team simply couldn't be stopped. You can knock out their legs, cut off their arms, and poke out their eyes, and they will keep coming after you. It remains as true now as it did then, and I think that this is an easy pick for the Top 3.

Full game highlights here.