FOXBOROUGH -- No one was more surprised than Tom Brady when his fourth-quarter across-the-body sling into a crowd of players in the end zone found the waiting arms of Doug Gabriel, providing the finishing touch on a 28-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Instead of celebrating, Brady stood on the right sideline, bemused, putting his hand on top of his helmet and staring ahead blankly, as if to say, "What did I do?"
What he did -- by his own admission -- was throw the ball into a crowd of defenders when he shouldn't have. What he may have done, even if unintentionally, was display newfound trust in his retooled receiver corps and buoy the group's confidence.
"That just shows the trust that he has in us," receiver Reche Caldwell said after the game. "That he can throw a ball up and we'll make a play, and if not, we'll knock it down where they won't pick the ball off. He told [Gabriel] that was luck. But he gave him a chance and he made a play on it."
No one has been giving the Patriots receivers much of a chance to prove themselves, their every missed sight adjustment and dropped ball chronicled as proof that the departures of Deion Branch and David Givens have left the passing game stuck in neutral.
However, with the benefit of a week off to fine-tune their passing game, the Patriots -- and Brady -- came out firing against the Bills and the result was their seventh straight victory over their so-called division rival.
On the first drive of the game, Brady was 6 of 9 for 43 yards, as he drove the Patriots 71 yards in 14 plays on a march that culminated in a Corey Dillon 8-yard touchdown run.
"It was a good drive," said Brady. "Good execution all the way around, good blocking, good throwing, good catching, good routes, good runs. I wish we'd do that more often. I think that's what we're working toward."
Brady connected on a season-high 66 percent of his passes, finishing 18 of 27 for 195 yards and two touchdowns. He spread the ball around -- completing passes to seven players. Caldwell (22 receiving yards) and Ben Watson (60) led the way with five catches apiece.
"With Tom, you know that if you are open, he's going to throw you the ball," said Caldwell, who tied his career high for catches in a game. "He's going to hit the open receiver. There's no go-to guy out there. It's just whoever's open, he's going to give them the football."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said yesterday he's noticed improvement in the passing game.
"I think we're executing some things better in the passing game than we did two weeks ago, three weeks ago, or the last time we played Buffalo," said Belichick. "I still think there's a lot of room for growth, and there's a lot of things we need to work on, but I think we're headed in the right direction. We've made progress."
However, the Patriots still boast just the 22d-rated passing attack in the league, and haven't completed a pass longer than 35 yards all year. Before rookie receiver Chad Jackson's 35-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter, which gave New England a 21-3 lead, Watson, a tight end, had the two longest receptions of the year.
Brady and his level of trust in his new receivers has been a topic of conversation all season and it's clearly one that the calm, cool, and collected QB is becoming tired of, his answers on the subject growing more rote each week.
"All those guys are working hard," said Brady. "Reche's doing good and Doug's doing good and Chad's doing good and Troy [Brown] continues to do well. Jabar [Gaffney] has done good just coming in here. Everyone was a part of the passing game. We don't throw it to one guy just because. You've got to get open. You run the routes that you think are best against their coverages and what our guys do well and try to get open."
Gabriel wasn't what one would term "open" on Brady's fourth-quarter fling, but he made the play, fighting to come back to the ball and earn Brady's trust.
"It's all about trust," said Watson. "If he trusts you, he'll throw it up there; if he doesn't it might not come your way."
While Brady and his pass catchers are closer to being on the same page on the field, they still have some kinks to work out off it. While Caldwell and Watson took Brady's desperation heave as a sign of his enhanced belief in his targets, Brady saw it as something else.
"Stupidity by me," he said. "Call it what you want. It ended up working out well for us."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.