FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP)—The New England Patriots left the field with wide smiles as dusk began descending Sunday on Gillette Stadium. Moments later, their hearts sank.
After coaching them to a 24-17 win over the New Orleans Saints that came down to the last play, Bill Belichick finally shared his burden with his players in the locker room: his father had died the night before.
“We’re coming off the field all happy, and then you could hear people go, ‘Whoa!’ ” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “This game is for Bill and his father.”
Steve Belichick, a former assistant coach at the Naval Academy for 33 years, died Saturday night of heart failure at age 86 after attending Navy’s win over Temple in Annapolis, Md., then watching more college games on television.
“I’m sure that’s the way he would have wanted it to end,” his son said, keeping his composure in brief postgame remarks.
The coach and his father had stood together, smiling broadly on the sidelines, when Tedy Bruschi poured cold liquid on them at the end of last season’s Super Bowl win over Philadelphia.
On Sunday, the Patriots coach followed his routine—focusing on the game as if little else mattered.
“He did exactly what his father would have wanted him to,” wide receiver Deion Branch said.
The coach watched Tom Brady throw three touchdown passes and lead scoring drives of 98 and 93 yards as the Patriots (6-4) remained atop the AFC East. He also saw Aaron Brooks throw two scoring passes for the Saints.
Brooks still set a club record with 116 touchdown passes, one more than Archie Manning, but the Saints (2-8) lost their sixth straight game.
“I’d rather we got the win,” Brooks said.
Brooks had a chance for his 117th—and a shot at overtime—on the last play, but Eugene Wilson intercepted a pass intended for Joe Horn in the end zone. On the previous play, Donte’ Stallworth caught a pass beyond the left back corner of the end zone.
“I don’t know what pass interference is,” said Stallworth, frustrated that no penalty was called. “I guess I’ve got to look it up in the NFL rule book.”
Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour said the game never should have come down to that.
“It was a little too close,” he said. “We’re making progress, but there’s still a long way to go.”
Injury-plagued New England won consecutive games for the first time—after winning two straight Super Bowls—as Brady reached 114 touchdown passes, fourth in team history.
His completed scoring passes on his first two series—a 2-yarder to Branch and a 1-yarder to Mike Vrabel, whose six NFL receptions in the regular season and playoffs have gone for touchdowns. Then Brady lost a fumble on the third series.
“It took a lot of momentum away,” he said.
The Saints gave the ball back on a failed fourth down, but scored on their next series on Brooks’ 7-yard pass to Stallworth, which tied the record Manning set in 11 seasons.
Brooks broke it in his sixth season with New Orleans on a 12-yarder to Stallworth with 5 minutes left and finished with 27 completions on 50 attempts for 343 yards.
New Orleans made it 24-17 with 2:20 to go on John Carney’s 46-yard field goal.
The Saints made costly mistakes in the second half—two consecutive penalties that ruined one drive, three penalties on one play that led to a Patriots field goal, and a failed 30-yard field-goal attempt by Carney.
Brady, who went 15-for-29 for 222 yards, led New England 93 yards on four plays capped by a 60-yard pass to Andre’ Davis that made it 21-7.
The Patriots’ first scoring drive covered 98 yards, their longest since a 98-yarder in a 42-23 win over Miami on Nov. 3, 1996.
Another New Orleans error came from defensive end Will Smith with 9:30 left in the game. He was called for three penalties on the same play—kneeing Christian Fauria while the tight end was on the ground, throwing his helmet and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Only one penalty was assessed—moving the ball from the Saints’ 28-yard line to the 14. Four plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal for a 24-7 lead with 7:52 remaining.
“Obviously, I overreacted,” Smith said. “What goes on in the trenches, stays in the trenches.”
Heath Evans, signed as a free agent on Nov. 1, had his second straight solid game and led the Patriots with 74 yards on 16 carries. … The Saints managed 87 yards on the ground. … Brooks passed for more than 200 yards for the fourth time this season after doing that 12 times last season.