Brady's the late-game master
HOUSTON -- Tough few days for Tom Brady. His apartment was burglarized Friday and he lost a television. Two of his passes were stolen yesterday and he lost a fumble. He also got pancaked near his own end zone in overtime.
But he's Tom Brady and somewhere along the line the football gods sprinkled stardust on his shoulder pads. There's always another TV to be delivered and there's always another victory to be won after the game appears lost. When you are Tom Brady the road of landmines always leads to somewhere over the rainbow.
In yet another seemingly hopeless late-game situation yesterday, Brady overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes and led the Patriots to a 23-20 OT victory over the Houston Texans before 70,719 ten-gallon-mad-hatters at Reliant Stadium. Brady's gaudy numbers included 29 completions in 47 attempts for a whopping 368 yards and two touchdowns, but those don't really tell you much about what kind of a day this was for QB 12.
This was a game in which Brady made some old-fashioned Bledsoe-like blunders -- trying to do too much when he'd have been better off eating the football. It was a game in which the Patriots annihilated the Texans in every offensive category except points. Brady gets much of the blame for the shortcomings, but he scrambled when he had to scramble, and converted third-down and fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter and OT when he had to make them, and somehow he willed his team to victory. Again. With Brady at quarterback, the Patriots are 7-0 in overtime games.
"It didn't look good there for a while," he said. "But it showed you we've got a lot of heart and perseverance."
After a day of mistakes and failure to capitalize, the Patriots trailed, 20-13, and faced a third-and-10 from their 33 with 2:26 left when Brady dropped back to pass and saw nothing. His miniature receivers were all covered and there were linemen in his face. At that moment, he did something very un-Brady like. He scrambled.
Brady is not Doug Flutie. Brady scrambling looks as natural as Bob Kraft dancing with Ty Law at City Hall Plaza. But he eluded his pursuers and gave Daniel Graham time to get open. He finally got it to Graham downfield for a game-saving 33-yard completion.
"I was running for my life," Brady said. "The first couple of guys weren't open. I had to spin back and roll to my right. I saw Daniel lose his guy and I just threw it. I didn't see the completion."
The big gain set up (five plays later) a fourth-and-1 4-yard touchdown pass to Graham with 40 seconds left that sent the game into OT. The TD required more improvisation from New England's signal-caller. He ran a bootleg to his right, but the Texans hadn't gone for the fake run to the left and it was clear Brady was going to lose his footrace for the first down. Instead of letting the game end on the play, he threw off his back foot, against the flow, and lofted it over coverage and into the suddenly dependable hands of Graham.
In OT, Brady could have lost the game again, but somehow he held on to the ball when he was blindsided by Jamie Sharper on a third-and-6 from his 13. A fumble would have meant the end of New England's six-game winning streak, but Brady held on, the Patriots punted, and they lived for another possession.
On the winning drive, Brady took the Patriots from their 14 down to the Houston 10, setting up Adam Vinatieri's field goal with just 41 seconds left in OT. The win gave Brady a career regular-season record (as a starter) of 29-12, which leads all active quarterbacks.
The win pushed New England to 9-2 for the first time in franchise history, but the Patriots know they won't be able to make so many mistakes (a blocked field goal and punt to go with Brady's gaffes) if they plan to return to Houston for Super Bowl XXXVIII Feb. 1.
Brady is mindful of his miscues. His first interception came because he was hit while he was throwing. But the second one was a force and resulted in a Texans touchdown. And the fumble was another play in which Brady should have taken the sack instead of trying to make something out of nothing. That led to Houston's second touchdown. Brady was picked off a third time in OT, but the interception was nullified by a Texans penalty.
"I've got to set the tone and quit making some of those dumb plays," Brady said. "To try to make a play with a guy hanging on me is never good."
"Tom tried to make a play and sometimes you just get hit," said coach Bill Belichick. "I'm sure Tom would like it back. But a game like his comes down to big plays, and whoever makes them deserves to win. Tom has always been great at the end of games. He's a good decision-maker. He really did a good job."
By Brady's lofty standards, it was not a particularly good job, despite the hefty numbers. A team doesn't usually win when its QB turns it over three times.
But this is 2003. This is Tom Brady. The Patriots always win. Next time they play here they'll be representing the AFC, maybe dressing in the home team's locker room.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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