FOXBOROUGH -- Troy Brown no longer has the market cornered on Tom Brady passes. Times have changed. He isn't the Patriots' undisputed No. 1 receiver anymore. Some games, he isn't even No. 2. For him, gone are the days of eight, nine, and 10 catches in a game. There were more one- and two-catch games for Brown this season. Brown had 40 receptions in 12 regular-season games (third on the team) after catching close to 200 balls the previous two seasons.
Not everything has changed, however. When crunch time comes, it doesn't matter if Brown was receiver No. 1, 2, or 22 -- No. 80 is still the one.
Funny how the highest compliment you can pay a football player is to refer to him as just that: a football player. For a receiver, the most respected title is that of playmaker. That's what Brown is. A football player and a playmaker. "It's in my blood, man," he said.
Of Brady's 21 completions in the Divisional playoff win over Tennessee, only two were to Brown. But one was, arguably, the play of the game.
With the game tied at 14 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots faced fourth and 3 from Tennessee's 33. Brady completed passes to 10 receivers that night. This time he went to old reliable. Brady and Brown, who beat the coverage of Lance Schulters, hooked up for a 4-yard completion and a first down. Four plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning 46-yard field goal.
Brown also returned Craig Hentrich's punt 9 yards to Tennessee's 40-yard line to set up the winning drive.
That's the essence of Brown. Small gains are big plays. Whatever the situation, he gets what his team needs.
"Fourth and 3 in a playoff game," coach Bill Belichick said, "or handling a punt there late in the fourth quarter, and in bad conditions getting it upfield and setting up the field position that ultimately led to the field goal. We have tremendous confidence in Troy Brown. He's a football-playing dude. That's the kind of guy you want out there at a time like this."
"What it comes down to is, you just play ball," Brown said. "It may not be as pretty as some of the other guys out there, Torry Holt or somebody. But it gets the job done."
Brown got it done before there was a Deion Branch, David Givens, or Bethel Johnson on the Patriots. It was Brown who caught a 23-yard pass on the Super Bowl-winning drive two years ago. It was Brown whose punt return for a touchdown and recovery of a blocked field goal (and lateral) against Pittsburgh the week before helped send the Patriots to New Orleans.
Brady has confidence in all his receivers. But they don't have the track record Brown does.
"Troy has been the go-to guy since I got here," Brady said. "When Drew [Bledsoe] was here, Drew found a way to get the ball to him. I think I've thrown so many balls to him to where, at this point, I can read his body language. I always know where he is on the field. He does a great job of getting open in man-to-man coverage, he has incredible awareness in zone coverage. He's got great hands, great elusiveness. He's tough to bring down. And he's a great leader. I think he makes that whole receiving corps better. I'm always looking for him, and when he's open, he usually gets it." Brown had his shin/ankle stepped on against the Browns in Week 8, and the next week hurt his hamstring. That kept him out for the next four games, including the Nov. 30 meeting with fellow AFC finalist Indianapolis. In the meantime, the team learned to get along without their most dangerous offensive weapon from the previous two seasons. But Brown isn't bitter about the hand fate dealt him.
"Nobody wants to get hurt," he said. "I hated that part of it. It's been a good season. We finished the season 14-2, you can't ask for too much more than that. We're playing for the AFC Championship."
But after an Oct. 5 win over Tennessee in which he caught just two passes, Brown expressed his displeasure about what he felt was a diminishing role. He later backed off. "We've got five receivers that dress and they can all play the game," Brown said. "You've got Kevin [Faulk] playing well, you got Christian [Fauria] and Dan [Graham] making plays. There's only one ball. It's kind of hard to get 15 catches a game when you've got so many guys that can make plays. It wasn't always like that."
Times have changed. The Patriots invested a second-round pick in a receiver the past two drafts. Givens, a seventh-rounder in 2002, came on strong in his second year.
"We have had a number of different players step up in a number of different positions to be productive," Belichick said. "I don't think there is really anything wrong with that. It's not one guy who is going to get the ball every time. I think there are a lot of people who have a lot of respect for Troy Brown in the league and sometimes that pulls more coverage into his area and less somewhere else."
Watch him make clutch plays, and it's hard to believe Brown arrived here way back in 1993. Tomorrow, Brown will play in his third AFC title game. He understands it could be his last. "They're not easy to get to, so you've got to take advantage of it when your chance comes," he said. "It's something to be one of the last four teams left."
Brown, the longest-tenured Patriot, doesn't have many playing years left. But he's left Patriots fans with several fond memories. Memories of a football player.