FOXBORO — There was 5:32 left in the fourth quarter Monday night and the Patriots were down 24-13 to Buffalo when Tom Brady stepped into the huddle.
“We’re going to win this game,” the quarterback told his teammates.
Brady speaks from experience. Entering Monday night, he had 28 previous games where he had led the Patriots to a win after a fourth-quarter deficit or a tie. Year off or no, why would this time be anything different? Same as it ever was.
“I just felt we had three timeouts with 5:32 left,” Brady later recalled. “I was just thinking, ‘If we could get down the field before that two-minute warning, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on them.’”
Brady then proceeded to do just that, stringing together an impressive 11-play, 81-yard drive that culminated with an 18-yard scoring strike to tight end Benjamin Watson to cut the lead to 24-19 with 2:06 remaining. On the ensuing kickoff, Stephen Gostkowski booted it 2 yards deep into the Bills' end zone, and that pressure Brady spoke of started to take effect. Buffalo’s peerless return man, Leodis McKelvin, foolishly decided to bring the ball out.
“When I caught the ball, I didn’t know if I had two feet inbounds or if my momentum took me into the end zone,” McKelvin explained. “If I downed it, it may have been a safety, so I decided to bring it out.”
Bad move. McKelvin soon compounded his error. He ran into Brandon Meriweather, who held him up. Pierre Woods then knocked the ball free, and Gostkowski of all people would recover it at the Buffalo 31-yard line. Brady would make Buffalo pay, finding Watson again on a 16-yard scoring strike with 50 seconds left to make it 25-24 and give New England another comeback win.
Just as it was on Oct. 14, 2001, against the Chargers, Nov. 10, 2002, against the Bears, Dec. 29, 2002, against the Dolphins, Nov. 4, 2007, against the Colts or Nov. 25, 2007, against the Eagles. Comeback wins are a part of who he is. It’s in his DNA.
“That’s why he is who he is,” shrugged Buffalo linebacker Kawika Mitchell of Brady, who finished 39-for-53 with 378 passing yards. “When you count it, that is when he’s gotten it done.”
In many ways, this latest dramatic comeback marks the final real hurdle in Brady’s rehab process. He’s shown he could do everything else — Monday night was just another test. The surgically repaired left knee showed resilience throughout the spring and summer practices, as well as every phase of the preseason. He took his lumps, absorbing preseason blows from Cincinnati's Robert Geathers and Washington's Albert Haynesworth. And now, back to the real thing for the first time in a year, there was only one more thing for Brady to do to show people that he has truly returned — pull out a last-second victory.
“It’s a great feeling to have that rhythm and that aspect of the game back,” said Patriots left tackle Matt Light.
Here are nine other things we learned Monday night in Foxboro:
Benjamin Watson is indeed capable of coming through in the clutch.
Believed to be on the chopping block less than two weeks ago, the embattled tight end had the biggest game of his six-year career with the Patriots, finishing with six catches for 77 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Both scores came within the last 2:06 of the game, and according to Brady, they both came on the same route.
“He ran two great routes — the first was an incredible route,” Brady said of Watson, who caught six of the seven balls thrown in his direction and equaled his touchdown output from last season in just one night.
While the first was impressive, the second was a truly great reception where he reached back to haul it in.
“The second was an incredible catch,” Brady said. “It was the same play. It was the same coverage, and the safety really squeezed him on the second one cause he recognized it. I tried to throw it high on his back shoulder, and he just went up and made a phenomenal catch. I told him it was the best catch I’ve ever seen him make. Hopefully, there are a lot more of those in store.”
“It’s always gratifying when you score touchdowns,” Watson said. “That’s what you go through all the stuff for — to score touchdowns and to win games. It’s definitely gratifying.”
When it comes to the opener, no one is immune from pregame jitters.
The New England offense was out of sync early on. Brady was 13-for-22 for 159 yards in the first half and had some really bad throws early on. Buffalo’s Aaron Schobel, who had a sack and an interception in the first half, flattened him on several occasions. And wide receivers Randy Moss (12 catches for 141 yards in the game) and Wes Welker (12 catches for 93 yards) had some uncharacteristically bad drops early on. On the defensive side of the ball, tackles were missed and assignments were blown.
Moss said it was a case of the nerves that got to him in the early going.
“I was a little nervous,” confessed the wide receiver, who spoke to the media after the game for the first time since the start of training camp. “I’m not going to sit here and lie. Me, individually, I was nervous, just the first game of the season. I settled down and started playing a little bit better.”
Brady simply said things were a bit “off” early on in the contest.
“I felt good all night — we were just off in the first half. The plays we needed to make we didn’t make,” Brady said. “We had a couple of fourth downs we missed. We had a third down we missed. We had two chances in the red area — we were 0-for-2 in the red area. The interception. Those things really put you behind the 8-ball.
“But we recovered, with just a couple seconds left. Sometimes, it goes like that. We came back and won. Being down 11 with 5½ minutes left, it’s a pretty special victory.”
Everyone knows about Randy Moss and his ability to stretch the field. But he can contribute in the short game as well.
Moss is usually known as someone who has an ability to stretch the field and draw opposing defenses away from the rest of the action. But on Monday night, he averaged a little less than 12 yards a catch, almost five full yards less than his career average.
Much of his yardage was picked up after the catch on a series of quick routes — his longest reception of the night was a 31-yarder. Other than that, it was a series of shorter underneath routes, many of which were a part of a change in the overall game plan the New England receivers ran throughout much of the second half, part of a concerted effort to try to negate the Buffalo pass rush.
“We have different players to go to different positions,” Moss said. “Tonight was whatever play was called. It’s just where I went. I guess that’s what the outcome was — I just went short and intermediate. So, if that’s what it was, that’s what it was.”
If Jerod Mayo is lost for any extended period of time, it will mean some serious changes for the Patriots defense.
The second-year linebacker was injured late in the first quarter on a 16-yard run by Buffalo running back Fred Jackson. When Mayo went down, it appeared that the Patriots medical staff was working on his right knee. After a few moments, he got up and walked to the sideline under his own power, but he soon left the bench and headed down the stairs to the locker room with some assistance. He did not return to the sideline the rest of the night and wasn’t in the locker room when the media was allowed in after the game.
In his place, Gary Guyton took over the middle linebacking duties and handled the defensive calls. There was some good and some bad in his effort. He yielded a handful of big plays and appeared to struggle to defend against screen passes, including being blocked clean out of the picture on a big Buffalo play, an 18-yard pass that allowed the Bills to pick up a fourth-quarter first down. To his credit, Guyton responded nicely two plays later with a nice hit on Buffalo running back Fred Jackson that broke up a pass play. He finished with four tackles on the night.
Guyton is a serviceable player who can tide you over for a week or two, but he’s not Mayo, not by a long shot. If Mayo is out for an extended period, the Patriots will be forced to get creative in their defensive looks to hide some deficiencies.
“You check on him, you play for him if that’s what you want to do, but you don’t have time to think about it,” said Adalius Thomas, who also shifted over to play some middle linebacker in Mayo’s absence.
Despite the knee injury, Tom Brady still appears to have one of his most important skills.
Pre-knee injury, one of the things that made Brady great was his ability to move in the pocket, his ability to detect pressure and make the slight adjustments needed to buy some time and deliver the ball to a waiting receiver. In the wake of his knee injury, there were questions if could still display that nimbleness in the pocket when it came to deftly avoiding a rush.
And while there were moments early on Monday night where he looked rusty and out of sync with the rest of the offense, he still displayed that nifty ability to sense the pressure around him and make the necessary adjustments. On a 13-yard connection with Welker late in the first half, Brady had some extra time in the pocket. First, he pump-faked. Then, he moved subtly to the left before finding Welker on a pass over the middle that got New England down to the Buffalo 1-yard line. (Fred Taylor plunged over from the 1 for the Patriots' first touchdown of the night.)
Brady also had a 9-yard run with about a minute to go in the first where he also showed flashes of being able to nicely detect pocket pressure, stepping up and around Matt Light — who was blocking Schobel — before running (well, moving) for a 9-yard gain.
Aaron Schobel doesn’t get near enough credit for the amount of stress he puts on the Patriots offense.
For all the talk of how Jason Taylor and Joey Porter have submitted dominating defensive performances against the Patriots, no one gives New England more fits than Schobel.
In the first half Monday night, the Buffalo defensive end controlled the game — he had a sack and an interception, and almost had a second interception in the second half. The Patriots tried a bunch of different blocking combinations to try to slow down the Buffalo pass rush. They used an extra offensive lineman, making Light a tight end and moving rookie Sebastian Vollmer into the left tackle spot (where Light struggled, drawing a rare tripping penalty). They frequently ran two tight ends out there.
And in the second half, they minimized their use of five-step drops, instead going with a series of quick passes out of either the shotgun or in a three-step drop. It led to a better rhythm on offense and more points on the board.
“We weren’t able to do that early on,” Light said. “We have to go into a two-minute mode and it’s the mode you have to go in and everybody’s dialed up and they have their ears pinned back and ready to rock and roll. We were just able to do a good job of moving the ball, getting first downs, sustaining it, utilizing the clock.”
The new-look Patriots secondary is still a work in progress.
New England opened up with Leigh Bodden and Jonathan Wilhite at cornerback and James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather at safety. It was the first regular-season game together for the foursome, who were also spelled by Darius Butler and Shawn Springs at cornerback and Brandon McGowan and Pat Chung at safety.
They struggled at times to hold the Buffalo passing game in check, yielding a pair of passing TDs by Bills quarterback Trent Edwards. The entire New England defense had its issues on a fourth-quarter drive by the Bills that went 14 plays and covered 62 yards and ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Edwards to Fred Jackson with 5:32 left.
“They had some good calls, and we left plays out there where we didn’t execute,” Sanders said. “We gave them a chance to make plays, and they capitalized on it.”
There were some good moments for the secondary to take out of the contest. They made sure Terrell Owens was a non-factor, holding him to two catches for 46 yards, with his first reception coming in the third quarter when he hauled in a 27-yard pass from Edwards. And Bodden, who did nothing to shake the belief that he is New England’s best corner, delivered some nice hits, including one on Buffalo receiver Lee Evans with just under four minutes left in the first half that jarred the ball loose.
Stephen Gostkowski is not your average kicker.
You rarely see kickers stick their nose into the pile on a fumbled kickoff, but Gostkowski did just that in the fourth quarter. The Memphis product was able to come away with the McKelvin fumble, which set up New England’s game-winning score with 50 seconds left. Belichick said he wasn’t surprised at the move, saying Gostkowski was “a pretty tough kid.”
It was a star-crossed night for the fourth-year kicker. He had a rare missed field goal in the first half when he sent a 41-yard attempt wide right, but he bounced back with two other makes, one from 20 yards out at the end of the first half and another from 28 yards out in the second half.
For many in the New England locker room, it was the first time they had seen a kicker get involved in a fumble recovery on his own kickoff.
“No I haven’t seen it before,” center Dan Koppen said. “[But] there are a lot of crazy things that happened tonight that I haven’t seen.”
It’s going to be another tough year for determining what is roughing the passer and what isn’t.
Thomas and Vince Wilfork each flattened Edwards on separate plays, and each were flagged for roughing the passer. They were two calls that could have gone either way, and both likely will ignite more debate about the state of physical football and what you can and can’t do to a quarterback.
Wilfork drew his penalty flag during Buffalo’s first drive of the second half when he hit Edwards around the waist. In an ironic twist, Wilfork was flagged under the new “Brady rule,” the penalty for hitting a quarterback too low, and the Patriots were assessed a 15-yard penalty. (The Bills got the ball out near midfield before punting the ball away.)
The second call against New England came midway through the fourth quarter and was far more costly. Buffalo was ahead 17-13 and was in a first-and-10 situation from the New England 26. Thomas beat his man and finished off what he thought was a 10-yard sack. But the Patriots linebacker spun Edwards around before throwing him to the ground, enough to earn a 15-yard penalty, keeping alive a Buffalo drive that ultimately ended with a touchdown.