ATLANTA -- It's all about survival now. The number of healthy impact players on the Patriots continues to dwindle and the team's best defensive player, Richard Seymour (knee), was the latest to be relegated to street clothes, for yesterday's game against Atlanta.
One wonders how the Patriots can continue to win without all the marquee names, and with the gaping holes they've left in their schemes.
And then you remember: Tom Brady is still healthy. As long as the quarterback is still standing, this team always will have a chance.
Look closely at the snapshot of New England's 31-28 win over the Falcons in the waning seconds and you'll see Brady's fingerprints all over it. His superb numbers were the most obvious proof -- 22 of 27 for 350 yards and 3 touchdowns -- yet Brady's teammates maintain he was laying the groundwork for this victory long before he took the field in the Georgia Dome.
''It was his demeanor," said tight end Ben Watson. ''We were coming off a loss last week [to San Diego], and we've had all these things happen, but he's not down. He's not upset, and he's not pointing fingers, unless it's to point them at himself. He's calm. He's the same. Every day, he's the same."
It has been a tumultuous start to the 2005 season. Brady conceded as much yesterday. The Patriots already have lost two games. They have fallen from their perch as the favored NFL sons, and every week figures to be a struggle.
''It seems like we've had our share of ups and downs," Brady said. ''We were looking to play a little more consistently today."
The defending Super Bowl champions long ago adopted ''Don't Look Back" as their theme song, but they easily could have chosen the Pousette-Dart Band's classic, ''Amnesia." The Patriots claim to have forgotten everything that happened before this season, but there's no denying their bountiful history of winning close games comes in handy when it's 28-28 with 3:52 left, and your team has the ball.
''There's [little] time on the clock, and we've got Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri," said linebacker Chad Brown. ''That inspires a lot of confidence."
Brown is a relative newcomer to the Patriots' mystique. As an opponent, he admired Brady's uncanny knack for game management from afar. But, he said, he had no idea how coolly and dispassionately the quarterback orchestrated his winning drives.
''When I first came here, I couldn't believe it," Brown said. ''I'm looking at these guys and thinking, 'Wow, they're so unemotional.' I came from Pittsburgh, and [coach Bill] Cowher, where we're yelling and spitting and cursing.
''But that's not how these guys go about it. There's no wasted energy. They've been in so many big games, and they've been in all those Super Bowls, so why? Why scream and yell? Why get too high or too low? It's a long game, so focus your energy on finding a way to win.
''It starts with Tom. He is so even-keeled it's incredible."
The quarterback didn't flinch when his team was called for a false start on the first play of that final drive, pushing him back 5 yards. He said nothing when offensive lineman Stephen Neal set them back another 10 yards for holding, negating a Brady to Deion Branch pass play that likely would have put his team in Atlanta territory.
''No matter what has just happened, when he walks in that huddle, he's putting his trust in us," Neal said. ''When someone does that, you want to do what you can out there for him."
New England was aided by a 30-yard interference call on Allen Rossum that spotted the ball at the Atlanta 44-yard line. Brady inched his boys closer with an 8-yard strike to Daniel Graham, then a sideline pass to Branch. A 15-yard rumble from Patrick Pass provided all the yardage the Patriots needed for Vinatieri to continue his streak of clutch kicks.
The clutch quarterback celebrated when the ball sailed through, but not for long.
Not too high, not too low.
''I pick my spots," Brady said. ''I need to provide some stability. That's not to say I won't [raise my voice]. Sometimes I do. It's all a matter of my mood, and how I'm feeling."
Brady was uncharacteristically ornery earlier in the week when discussing San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer, whose seemingly innocuous quotes regarding the Patriots' multiple injuries became a rallying cry for New England. The Patriots weren't looking for -- and didn't appreciate -- excuses provided to them by a coach whose squad had just whipped them, 41-17.
The Patriots don't want to hear about the guys who are out, but the effect has been undeniable. Without Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Ted Johnson, Randall Gay, Tyrone Poole, and now Seymour, they are vulnerable. Check the stats. This defense has produced one interception in five games -- and it was linebacker Mike Vrabel who picked it off. There's no better way to take pressure off a maligned secondary than to keep putting points on the board for it.
''Last week we let our defense down," Brady said. ''We didn't match [scores] at all."
They more than contributed their share yesterday. The Patriots offense staked the team to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, with Brady picking apart the Falcons' defense.
''The hardest thing about getting to Brady is his quick release," said Atlanta defensive end Patrick Kerney. ''We wanted to pressure him, but you can't sack the quarterback when he doesn't have the ball. He did a good job of getting rid of it."
Consider the situation at halftime, after Atlanta all but erased that early two-touchdown deficit. Trailing, 14-10, the Falcons trotted out their punter to attempt his first NFL field goal. Michael Koenen missed a 58-yard shot, but New England had called time. When play resumed, Koenen made the kick. Naturally, the stadium, which was flooded with red jerseys and fans hungry for good omens in the wake of losing their own star quarterback, Michael Vick, to injury, went wild.
So here's what Brady's Patriots did to open the third quarter. First, it was Brady to Graham for 45 yards. Then it was Brady to Watson for a 33-yard touchdown (he'd complete 10 straight passes). Two plays. Seventy-eight yards. 21-13 Patriots. One huge turn in the game.
''He's just the smartest football player I've ever been around," said Neal. ''He was checking off all over the place. He saw everything. He knows what is going to happen before it happens."
Brady isn't perfect. He confessed to throwing the ball a bit short on the interference play to Branch. He's still mad at himself for not noticing Ike Reese barreling toward him sooner in the final seconds of the third quarter. Brady tried to get rid of the ball, but Reese tipped it and Demorrio Williams intercepted at the Atlanta 47. That led to a Falcons touchdown and a 28-20 game.
If the television cameras had panned to Brady on the sideline, they would not have seen him banging his helmet, kicking the bench, or, for that matter, yelling or spitting or cursing.
That might work for some guys. In this season of survival, the quarterback can't afford to show his hand. As long as he's still standing, he remains the king of calm, the dispassionate keeper of a white-hot flame.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.