Minnesota had just kicked a field goal, five plays earlier, to put the Vikings up 10-7 over the Patriots. Midway through the third quarter of the first-ever Halloween home game in franchise history, New England faced a 2nd-and-10 from its own 35-yard line.
The play call was transmitted to the huddle, which quarterbackTom Bradythen relayed to his 10 teammates. They approached the line of scrimmage with a two-tight end set, rookie Rob Gronkowskilined up beside right tackle Sebastian Vollmerand veteran Alge Crumpler a step behind in the backfield. Wide receiver Wes Welkerwas split to the right between the hash marks and the numbers, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellissix yards directly behind Brady, and receiver Brandon Tatelined up to the short-side left outside the numbers.
The Vikings brought seven men in the box, five of whom were on the line of scrimmage, a sixth threatening to blitz. The corners were in man coverage, each with safety help nearby.
At the snap, Crumpler slid to the middle of the o-line, pretending to lead-block for Green-Ellis, to whom Brady had play-action faked. Brady immediately looked to his right for Welker, who was running a fly pattern up the right sideline. But he was well covered, so Brady checked down to his second read, Tate, on the left.
As the pocket collapsed from Brady's right side, he pump faked in Tate's direction as a Viking defender dove for Brady's ankles. The QB was forced to improvise, and that nearly cost the Patriots dearly.
"The play broke down," head coach Bill Belichickexplained moments after the game ended. "[Welker] wasn't open, so [Brady] got flushed out of the pocket, scrambled and [in those situations], the receivers look to uncover off the defenders and Tom looks to find a receiver that uncovers. That's a pretty basic scramble situation."
Easier said than done, however, coach.
By "uncovering," Belichick meant that the receivers would look to separate from their defenders, who might be more preoccupied with where the quarterback is scrambling. Which is precisely what Tate did, while his quarterback was running for cover.
Brady tucked the ball under his arm and spun counterclockwise away from the defender and five yards deeper in his own backfield. When he turned back toward the direction of his receivers, he planted his feet at his own 24-yard line as two more Vikings bore down on him. This froze, momentarily, the corner assigned to Tate.
"Brandon had just wheeled and went up the sideline and made a great play to uncover," Brady said in his post-game remarks. "I just caught a glimpse of him as I turned out of it and threw it up there. He was wide open and he made a great catch and a great run. He's so dangerous in the open field. He's tough to tackle. It was great to see the back of his jersey running. That was pretty sweet."
"Yeah, I guess he might have seen me make the move, get ready to go," Tate commented. "I didn't think he saw me do it. I just saw him throw it. So yeah, I guess he saw me make a move and he knew I was going up field and he just trusted me and turned and threw it. He was scrambling and I saw he needed help. So I acted like I was going to run up to get the DB to come up. I just spun around and he saw me and just threw it."
Tate found a good five yards of separation from cornerback Asher Allen when he snagged Brady's pass. But with Vikings safety Madieu Williamslurking five yards in front between him and the end zone, Tate had to make another move to reach his destination. The slightest of shoulder feints to his left was enough to cause Williams' feet to tangle, slowing the defender enough for Tate to turn on his own jets and outsprint the Vikings to their own end zone. The entire drama unfolded in exactly 15 seconds – an eternity compared to most NFL plays.
Adding a little razzle to his dazzle, Tate high-stepped the final five yards, while swaying his arms side to side with the ball in his right hand. It was the second-year player's first career receiving touchdown in the NFL.
"Just excited and celebrating," Tate went on to explain. "When we were meeting with Tom last night, he told us to stay alive on all scramble plays. I just turned up field and he saw me and threw it. I just ran and scored."
"We were in man to man coverage and it was my man," Allen lamented in the Gillette Stadium visitors locker room. "They basically ran a play like an out cut, and the quarterback started scrambling. You just have to stay on your guy, no matter how long the play is and I kind of lost him towards the end.
"As a DB you are always thinking turnover. You usually have a little mental clock going off. You actually want to change the game by making a play. They were just improvising. They were improvising plays, running plays. You try to figure out what's going on. You can't stay on him like that because you are figuring the ball is coming out. You want to make a play on it but it didn't happen like that."
"Obviously, well done by Tate," Belichick added, "and then he made a nice move there on Williams, and got the last 20 or 30 yards and turned it into a touchdown instead of just a long gain. It was really not a very well-run play, but [we] made the best of a bad situation, scrambled and got open and caught the ball, improvised and made it into a touchdown. Sometimes those happen if you just follow your rules and you're able to keep the play alive long enough."