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Passing grade

Brady returns to lead Patriots past Eagles

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By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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PHILADELPHIA - One small step for the Patriots, one giant leap for Tom Brady’s surgically-repaired knee.

South Philadelphia was the scene of the most recent checkpoint in Brady’s recovery, as the comebacking quarterback returned to NFL action in New England’s exhibition opener last night against the Philadelphia Eagles. Brady was playing in a game for the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee in the 2008 season opener last Sept. 7.

Brady escaped Lincoln Financial Field with both his knee and his confidence intact, and the Patriots held on for a 27-25 victory.

Brady played four series and 24 snaps, nine more than he lasted last season. He completed 10 of 15 passes for 100 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He looked much closer to the QB who threw 50 touchdown passes in 2007 than a petrified passer focused more on his knee than reading defenses.

“It’s a real small step for this whole team in a ve ry long journey,’’ said Brady. “We’re on a mission this year and this is the first step. It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.’’

When Brady left the game with 46 seconds remaining in the first half, replaced by Andrew Walter, the Patriots held a 21-6 lead. The Eagles rallied behind backup quarterback/Patriots killer A.J. Feeley to pull within 24-22 at the end of the third quarter.

The teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter and then Eagles kicker David Akers, who hit four field goals, missed a potential game-winning 43-yard attempt with 57 seconds left.

But the outcome was irrelevant for the Patriots, the real victory was simply seeing their franchise quarterback back under center.

“I didn’t see him. I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, but it sure felt like it back there,’’ said guard Logan Mankins, when asked if it was the same old Brady. “He was cool and calm as usual and he was hitting receivers, so it must have been the same old Tom.’’

It was a night for quarterbacks - or at least those with their roots in that position. Brady was back on the field. Disgraced former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was back in the NFL, signing with the Eagles, the news breaking during the game. Rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman, a quarterback in college, caught the first pass Brady threw, and scored on a 75-yard punt return in his first game.

About 55 minutes prior to kickoff, Brady came onto the field in full uniform. He did some light running and then started warming up with backup Kevin O’Connell.

It didn’t take Brady long to warm up the Patriots’ offense, with some help from an old friend, former Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel.

On the Patriots’ second possession, Samuel was called for pass interference on a deep ball to Randy Moss along the right sideline. The penalty moved the ball from the Patriots’ 36 to the Philadelphia 18. Five plays later, Brady hit tight end Chris Baker with a 4-yard touchdown pass to give New England a 7-0 lead.

The Eagles responded with a 12-play, 60-yard drive. Philadelphia moved the ball to the Patriots’ 16, but the New England defense, which featured a 4-3 look all night, stopped the march. Tully Banta-Cain raced around left tackle Jason Peters to sack Donovan McNabb for a 4-yard loss, and Philadelphia had to settle for a field goal.

“We used a lot of four-man fronts,’’ said Belichick. “It was all four-man fronts, really. Different personnel groups, but basically guys we counted as down. So we wanted to take a look at that. We got a good look at that, a little more than we thought we would, actually.’’

The biggest question entering the game regarding Brady was whether he would favor his knee when he was in the pocket. For the most part, he did not.

However, there were glimpses of apprehension and caution.

On the Patriots’ third possession, Brady was intercepted on a deep pass to Moss. Brady didn’t step into the throw with his plant (left) leg and the ball hung in the air and was an easy interception for Sheldon Brown at the Eagles’ 12. Brady walked to the sideline, sat on the bench, and fired an object to the ground in frustration.

Was that due to a mechanical mistake or a mental one?

“Probably both. I probably shouldn’t have thrown it,’’ said Brady. “If I did throw it I would have thrown it further. When you throw the long ball you either want your guy to get it or nobody to get it. That obviously didn’t happen.’’

The interception didn’t hurt the Patriots, as they forced Philadelphia to punt. Sav Rocca’s first effort was called back by an illegal procedure penalty. On the re-kick, Edelman, a neophyte punt returner out of Kent State, fielded the ball at his 25 and returned it for a touchdown.

Brady got one last possession with 5:07 left in the half. New England moved to its spread, hurry-up attack and Brady looked right at home, moving the Patriots 75 yards in 10 plays. He picked up a third and 1 with a quarterback sneak, plunging himself into the middle of a scrum, and hit Moss (three catches, 54 yards) with a picturesque 35-yard strike to move the ball from the Eagles’ 47 to the 12.

No. 12’s night ended three plays later when he hit Baker with a second touchdown strike, this one a 9-yarder, that sent the Patriots and Brady to the locker room with a 15-point lead and the belief that his knee is just fine.

“That’s a thing of the past,’’ said Brady of his injury. “That’s ’08. We’ve moved on.’’

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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