FOXBOROUGH - All that talk about how meaningless the backup quarterback competition in the preseason was doesn't seem so meaningless anymore. Suddenly, who is behind Tom Brady at QB is very relevant for the 2008 New England Patriots.
The Patriots barely got used to playing with Brady, who sat out the entire preseason with a mysterious right foot injury, before they potentially lost him for the season Sunday in their 17-10 season-opening victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. According to multiple media reports, including ESPN and
An NFL source said Patriots coach Bill Belichick told his team that Brady's injury could be bad and to prepare for Matt Cassel to be the quarterback going forward, but the source could not confirm the diagnosis of a torn ACL. A separate league source said that Brady was resting at home last night and would undergo "further evaluation" - most likely an MRI - Monday, and the expectation is that it will confirm a serious knee injury.
Brady departed the game after the injury with 7:27 left in the first quarter. He did not return. The loss of The Franchise was a sickening sight for any Patriots fan.
On the Patriots' 15th offensive snap of the game, Brady dropped back from the Kansas City 43. Chiefs safety Pollard blitzed, but was picked up and put face down by running back Sammy Morris. As Brady stepped into a 28-yard completion to Randy Moss, Pollard made a desperation dive at Brady's legs, his shoulder crashing into the quarterback's left knee. The next sound Pollard heard was Brady screaming and yelling as he clutched the knee.
"When I heard him scream and yell, I knew something was wrong, said Pollard, who was apologetic after the game. "That [stinks] because he's a great player."
Brady, who ended 7 of 11 for 76 yards, managed to get to his feet and limp off the field, but headed directly to the locker room and then to a medical facility. He was replaced by Matt Cassel, who led the Patriots to their 20th straight regular-season win.
Moss, who added insult to injury on the play by losing a fumble at the Kansas City 16-yard line, said he thought Pollard's hit was dirty.
"Me personally, I thought it was dirty," said Moss. "Like I said, I didn't really see anything because I was running down the field, but it looked dirty to me. I've never been a dirty player. I honestly don't even know how to play dirty. I just play the game. Anytime you see something like that that looks foul, that looks dirty, it opens your eyes."
Pollard said anybody who knows him knows he isn't that type of player.
"I never ever wanted to do anything like that," said the third-year safety from Purdue. "If I could turn back the hands of time, which we can't, but if I could turn back the hands of time, I would bring him back. But I can't do that."
The game itself, which came down to a goal line stand by the Patriots against the Chiefs, who had four shots to tie the game from the New England 5, was pretty dramatic.
Who would have thought that when it was decided, the quarterbacks for their respective teams would be Cassel and former Patriots backup Damon Huard, the man Brady beat out for the Patriots' backup job in 2001. Huard replaced Chiefs starter Brodie Croyle, who suffered a separated shoulder on a third-quarter sack by Adalius Thomas.
Cassel (13 of 18 for 152 yards and a touchdown) proved a more than adequate caretaker in Brady's absence, and he had help from a running game that averaged 4.5 yards per carry (28 rushes for 126 yards). The much-maligned fourth-year QB guided the Patriots to 17 points, after producing just a pair of field goals in 17 exhibition-game possessions.
Cassel's first pass came on the final play of the first quarter. On third and 11 from the New England 1, he lofted a rainbow to Moss that resulted in a 51-yard gain - the longest pass of Cassel's four-year career. Cassel then closed out the 10-play, 98-yard drive by finding Moss (six catches for 116 yards and a score) in the back of the end zone from 10 yards out with 11:45 left in the half.
The Patriots, who led, 7-3, at the half, extended their lead to 14-3 on their first possession of the second half. Morris, who had 10 rushes for a team-high 53 yards and added five receptions for 34 yards, capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with a 5-yard run.
However, Huard had his own backup heroics in mind. He hit Dwayne Bowe for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 13:06 left in the fourth to cut the New England lead to 14-10. After Ellis Hobbs intercepted Huard at the KC 41 to set up a 37-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 2:26 left, Huard and Kansas City had one last chance to hand the Patriots another loss besides the reigning league Most Valuable Player, getting the ball at their 22 with 2:20 left.
On second and 16 from his 27, Huard hit a streaking Devard Darling, who was caught from behind by Patriots cornerback Deltha O'Neal for a 68-yard gain, setting up first and goal at the Patriots' 5 with 53 seconds left. But the Patriots denied the Chiefs four straight times, Huard's fourth-down pass to Bowe going incomplete.
"We had a tough year in the red area last year, and to come up with four big plays around the 5 at the end of the game, even though I was disappointed they got down there, I was pleased the way our defense stepped up and played there at the end," said Belichick.
But it's all about Brady, and even his teammates aren't banking on a speedy return.
"When Tom got hurt and he went into the locker room, every time the fans cheered I looked over at the door, hoping I'd see that 12 come out those doors and up those steps," said Moss. "Basically, I was just snapping my neck every time. Late in the fourth quarter, actually after halftime, I knew he wasn't coming back, but I don't know his injury and what happened, all I know is that he didn't come back.
"Matt Cassel had a [heck] of a game, and hopefully next week he can pick up where he left off."
Mike Reiss of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.