Monday, September 14, 2009

Same, Old Tom Brady

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.--Okay, so maybe it's the same, old Tom Brady, after all.

There were times during the New England Patriots' season opener here Monday night when Brady looked like a quarterback still needing to knock some of the rust off his game as he returns from a season in which he was sidelined by a knee injury suffered in the opener.

He spent more than three quarters piling up handsome statistics but failing to deliver the big throws to finish off drives. The Patriots didn't resemble the historically dominant team that, with Brady, took an unbeaten record into the Super Bowl two seasons ago. They trailed the Buffalo Bills by 11 points with 5-1/2 minutes to play.

But then their quarterback reverted to being Tom Brady, three-time Super Bowl winner and all-around football miracle-worker. He told his teammates in the huddle that they would find a way to win the game, and then he made it happen with a pair of late touchdown passes to tight end Benjamin Watson. The Bills did their part with a fumble on a kickoff return, and the Patriots escaped with a 25-24 triumph.

"It never gets old," left tackle Matt Light said in the Patriots' postgame locker room. "He went out there and did everything you could do. It's a great feeling. It's a great win for us. It's a big boost. It wasn't pretty, but it was fun."

The Patriots filled the stat sheet with big numbers. Brady completed 39 of 53 passes for 378 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Randy Moss had 12 catches for 141 yards. Fellow wideout Wes Welker had 12 catches for 93 yards.

But for most of the night, these Patriots didn't resemble the record-setting, opponent-demoralizing version of 2007. Their first three drives produced a failed fourth-and-inches run, a missed field goal and a possession-ending sack. Brady threw a second-quarter screen pass that was intercepted by Bills defensive end Aaron Schobel and returned for a touchdown. Brady and Welker failed to connect on a fourth-and-two pass in the third quarter.

The Patriots managed only one touchdown and a pair of field goals in more than 3-1/2 quarters, and the Bills had a 24-13 lead when quarterback Trent Edwards threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to tailback Fred Jackson with 5:32 to go.

"We didn't play very well in the first half," Brady said. "We missed some really good opportunities. The interception, that was a really bad play. You can't do that.... We've all got to improve. We've all got to make better plays. You can't leave it up to chance like that."

Said Moss: "We started off a little slow. It looked like we were trying to feel our way through it.... It his nothing to do with [Brady's] layoff. I think it was just first-game jitters."

It was at that point in the game that Brady became Brady again.

"When Tom came in that huddle with 5:32 left and said, 'Come on, guys. Let's get going. We're gonna win this game,' everything was positive from there," Moss said.

Brady's first touchdown pass to Watson, an 18-yarder, got the Patriots to within 24-19 with 2:06 remaining. The Patriots failed on a two-point conversion.

"I was thinking if we can get down the field before the two-minute warning, that would put a lot of pressure on them," Brady said.

With three timeouts left plus the two-minute warning, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick opted against an onside kick. Bills returner Leodis McKelvin fielded the ball two yards deep in the end zone, and chose to run the ball out. He was hit hard by the Patriots' Brandon Meriweather. Pierre Woods knocked the ball out of McKelvin's hands, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski made the recovery for the Patriots.

Was there any doubt at that point what would happen? Brady's second touchdown pass to Watson, a 16-yarder, came on the same play call, with the same defensive coverage by the Bills, as the first one. Only this time, Watson had to make a superb leaping catch.

"I told him it was the best catch I've ever seen him make," Brady said.

Brady called the win "pretty special."

Belichick was typically understated.

"I'm proud of every win," Belichick said. "It's hard to win in this league.... That's not exactly the way you draw them up. But we'll take the result."

The Bills were left with a stomach-churning defeat along the same lines as the Monday night would-be victory they squandered two years ago against the Dallas Cowboys. The Bills lost that game on Oct. 8, 2007 by an identical 25-24 score by surrendering nine points in the final 20 seconds.

For the Bills, this night was supposed to be about wide receiver Terrell Owens, who had two catches for 46 yards in his debut for his new team, then refused to speak to reporters afterward.

Instead, it was about another Monday night heartbreak.

"We didn't come to play a close game," Bills Coach Dick Jauron said. "We came to win a game. We're just disappointed."


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