FOXBOROUGH - It was the football version of "It's a Wonderful Life" for Tom Brady last night. He got to see what the Patriots would look like without him, and it was less than wonderful for him and everybody else at Gillette Stadium to watch.
Coldplay was the band Brady went to see in concert recently, and it was also an accurate description of the team's quarterback play without No. 12 last night in its exhibition opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
Let's get to the obvious. If Brady, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, goes down, the season is all but over for New England. No Brady, and Broadway Brett Favre and the New York Jets are the new AFC East favorites. But there will come a day when Brady, who turned 31 last Sunday, is no longer the franchise's Super Bowl-winning, supermodel-dating, magazine-cover-gracing quarterback.
Based on last night's 16-15 loss, the Patriots aren't ready for that day yet.
Coach Bill Belichick held Brady out of the game so he could get a look at understudies Matt Cassel, Matt Gutierrez, and rookie Kevin O'Connell. The three combined to complete 17 of 33 passes for 144 yards with three interceptions.
"We got out there and we couldn't really get anything going," said Cassel, who was 1 for 4 for 11 yards and an interception. "We had some penalties and some miscommunication between me and Chad [Jackson]. It's one of those things where you try to go out in the first game and execute, and we weren't really able to do that tonight. So, as we move forward, we've just got to get better and tighten up the screws."
The most promising of Brady's backups was O'Connell, who entered the game late in the third quarter and generated some excitement with his legs - he rushed twice for 22 yards, including a 15-yard scramble for a first down on a drive that ended in a field goal - and led the Patriots to their lone touchdown, a 1-yard run by LaMont Jordan (19 rushes, 76 yards) with 6:07 left that pulled them within 16-15.
"Coach [Josh] McDaniels let me know if things break down you can use your legs a little bit and try to make some plays there," said O'Connell, who was 6 for 13 for 57 yards and an interception. "I just wanted to do anything I could to get the ball rolling there and get some points. LaMont ran the ball well down in the red zone, and the offensive line got real physical and we punched it in on that one drive."
O'Connell's 2-point conversion pass was knocked down. Trailing by a point, O'Connell got the ball at the Patriots' 9 with 2:45 to go, a chance for Brady-like heroics, but after he scrambled in his end zone to buy time, C.J. Jones juggled the pass and turned it into an interception.
Cassel, the incumbent clipboard holder, got the starting nod. His first three passes went in the direction of Jackson. Only one of them was caught, and it was by Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington at the Baltimore 21, two plays after an Adalius Thomas strip sack had set up Cassel and Co. at the Ravens' 44-yard line.
The interception led to some bickering between Cassel and Jackson. But Cassel was on his own early in the second quarter when he slipped, untouched, on a third-down rollout and fumbled the ball for a 7-yard loss. The slip-up brought out the boo-birds.
That was it for Cassel. He was replaced by Gutierrez with 12:01 left in the second quarter and the Patriots trailing, 10-0, the result of a Le'Ron McClain 1-yard touchdown run that followed Yamon Figurs's 52-yard punt return. Gutierrez led the Patriots to their only points of the half, a 36-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 3:21 left. It was set up by an interception by rookie linebacker Shawn Crable.
Baltimore boosted its lead to 13-3 on a 44-yard field goal by Matt Stover. Gutierrez attempted to lead a two-minute offense, moving the Patriots from their 38 to the Ravens' 22, but he, too, fell victim to Washington, who picked off a pass intended for Matthew Slater to send the Patriots into the locker room trailing by 10.
"On the second one, [Gutierrez] just telegraphed it," said Washington. "He was looking at me the whole way, and I broke on the ball when he let it go. The first one was underthrown by [Cassel]. He threw it behind the receiver and I was right there."
It was not a pretty first half for the Patriots' offense, which registered just 85 yards on six possessions. The final stats were deceiving, with the Patriots outgaining the Ravens, 236-204, but turning the ball over five times.
On New England's first possession of the second half, Gutierrez lost the ball on a botched quarterback-center exchange. That miscue translated into the Ravens' third field goal.
"It was my fault," said Gutierrez, who finished 10 for 16 for 76 yards and an interception, and was sacked three times "I've got to stay in there with him longer. We had enough experience where I should have got that."
Gutierrez, at least, left on a high note. He took the Patriots 42 yards in 13 plays to set up Gostkowski for a 44-yard field goal with 5:46 left in the third quarter that trimmed Baltimore's advantage to 16-6.
The last time these teams met prior to last night's open quarterback auditions, the Patriots pulled out a memorable Monday night victory, 27-24, on Dec. 3.
There was nothing approximating that drama - or level of execution - last night, as Brady-free football proved anything but memorable for the Patriots.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.