And yet, with the Patriots facing a 26-23 deficit to the New York Jets and a potential 3-4 record in a season that is shaking all of New England's confidence, Brady turned the clock back all the way to 2001. Fifteen yards here. Twelve yards there. Seven more over there. There was nothing spectacular or glitzy about it. Brady calmly, efficiently and patiently took what the opposition gave him, something the Patriots have seemingly been unwilling to do in the most critical situations for far, far too long.
Maybe that was the start of something for Brady and the Patriots. Maybe it was an aberration.
"That was a big two-minute drive," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters following his team's 29-26 overtime at Gillette Stadium. "It was a big stop for us defensively to hold them to a field goal and be able to stay in the game. Yeah, that was a big drive. Again, there were things that certainly could have been better, but in the end we did enough good things to win. Certainly that was a big drive, taking it down the length of the field, big kick to get it into overtime. That was good. Some of the things that we did to put ourselves in that position obviously need [to] and hopefully can be better."
Added Brady, "It's nice to win the close games. It's nice to win when you're down 3 with 1:40 in the game. I think a lot of guys made a lot of really great plays to get us in that position."
A fluke? Perhaps, if only because the Patriots of late have given us little reason to believe that they can execute when things are most tense. The secondary remains a sieve. New England collapsed yet again down the stretch of a game in which the Patriots led by 10 more than halfway through the fourth quarter, breakdowns coming on offense, defense and even special teams like some sort of unpreventable chain reaction.
In just a matter of minutes, the Patriots allowed a 92-yard touchdown drive, went three-and-out, surrendered another scoring drive, fumbled a kickoff, gave up a field goal. Just like that, the Patriots went from up 23-13 to down 26-23, bringing Brady onto the field fir what was undoubtedly their biggest possession of the season.
There was a time when the sight of Brady running onto the field inspired confidence in these situations, but not anymore, not now, not when so much has been thrust upon him. Just minutes earlier, after the Jets had cut New England's lead to 23-20, Brady took the Patriots onto the field at their own 21-yard line. Brandon Lloyd was promptly called for offensive pass interference on the first play from scrimmage, leaving the Patriots with a first-and-20 from their own 11-yard line.
So what did Brady do? On first down, he rolled to his right and carelessly threw a ball toward Rob Gronkowski that should have been intercepted but Jets defensive back Antonio Cromartie dropped it. On second down, the Patriots ran for a measly four yards. On third down, Brady threw a deep ball down the left sideline that fell incomplete well beyond Wes Welker, concluding a possession that lasted 1 minute, 20 seconds and went for minus-6 yards.
But then, this is who the Patriots have become now when they are put in a vise. They play a sandlot game that looks as if it were drawn up by 9-year-old and quarterbacked by his younger brother. At Seattle last week, needing a field goal with 1:14 to play, Brady began New England's final possession by throwing an incompletion deep down the right sideline and then taking a sack that ended with left tackle Nate Solder falling on him. The play was nothing if not symbolic, the quarterback of the Patriots collapsing under the weight of his own team.
There are obviously two stories to be told here, the first concerning the deterioration of the Patriots defense, the second concerning what that has done to their quarterback. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Patriots have allowed more touchdown passes than any other team in football. They rank 23rd among the 32 NFL teams in defensive passer rating. New England has not been able to stop most anyone when the game has been on the line, Belichick turning over defensive backs as if frantically searching through the the contents of his sock drawer. (They all have holes, Bill.)
Along the way, Brady has somehow morphed from the man who repeatedly dumped the ball to J.R. Redmond in Super Bowl XXXVI to a reincarnation of Dan Fouts or Dan Marino. Neither of those men won anything, either. Brady has essentially averaged nearly 40 touchdown passes and 4,500 yards a year beginning in 2007, yet the Patriots have gone 4-4 in postseason play and, in more recent years, looked downright unglued at the end of games.
Most worrisome of all, perhaps, is that Belichick seemingly has taken steps to address those issues during the last two offseasons, bringing in both pass rushers (Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, Chandler Jones) and outside receivers (Chad Ochocinco, Brandon Lloyd). At the biggest moments, the results have been poor. On Sunday, Brady targeted Lloyd eight times and had one completion, which isn't even a good batting average, let alone a completion percentage.
All of that said, Brady's drives at the end of regulation and at the start of overtime were noteworthy, if for no other reason than this: there was no forcing, no glitz, no flash. Just sound fundamental football. On the drives that produced kicker Stephen Gostkowski's game-tying and game-winning kicks, Brady went 9-for-13 (69.2 percent) for 95 yards. The quarterback of the Patriots did not produce a touchdown pass on either possession, of course, but Brady did produce the only thing that once mattered to him, Belichick and anyone else who has followed the Patriots.
For Brady, at least, maybe that was a necessary refresher.
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