The first chance in more than seven months to see the Patriots play a game that matters couldn't have been more satisfying. The outcome, a 34-13 victory over the Titans in which more the than usual cast of Patriots played extremely well, perfectly fit the game plan regarding how fans daydreamed it might go.
With that first victory came so many other firsts -- the first 30-plus-point performance (a number they achieved in their first five games last year and their first eight in 2007), the first clues that this offense is going to be as versatile as any they have ever had (122-catch receiver Wes Welker was practically an afterthought), the first Tom Brady milestone (he threw career TD passes Nos. 301 and 302, breaking a tie with John Elway for fifth), and the season's first successfully executed GRONKSPIKE! ...
Well, OK, we're still waiting on that last one, with all-world
Russ Francis Rob Gronkowski doing something during his celebration he rarely does when a pass is thrown his way -- he lost his grip on the football. There will be other spikes, roughly one per week, so he'll have plenty of chances to repair that part of his game.
Here are a few other firsts in a performance so thoroughly entertaining that next Sunday's matchup with the Cardinals already feels much too far away.
First touchdown: Let the record show that it went to tight end/wide receiver/running back Aaron Hernandez, who hauled in a 23-yard changeup down the middle from Brady and breezed into the end zone with 1 minute 59 seconds left in the first quarter.
While there were other appropriate choices to be the first to find the end zone this year -- Welker or Gronkowski to name the most obvious -- it does seem fitting that it was Hernandez, as if foreshadowing the monster season most of us believe is coming from him.
The Patriots have never had anything like Hernandez -- the best comparison I can come up with in terms of being a Swiss Army knife for the offense is Keith Byars, and they couldn't be more different physically or athletically. Byars would need five steps to cover the ground Hernandez does in one stride.
What an incredible weapon.
First catch by a newly acquired receiver who can really play: I'm irrationally excited about watching Brandon Lloyd carve out his niche in this offense. Not that their passing game needed much, but he's exactly what their passing game needed, you know? As evidenced by his 27-yard grab on the Patriots' first play of the second quarter, he can get open down the field, something the offense lacked all of last season.
And that's not all there is to like about Lloyd. He's as versatile a receiver as the Patriots have had in Brady's time here, he's going to thrive in this system because he already has, and he reminds me of Terry Glenn in the graceful way he contorts to catch everything with his hands.
He was good Sunday -- five catches, 69 yards, and a near-miss on a sure touchdown -- and he's only going to get better as he and Brady develop chemistry.
First running back to show a burst: Two seasons ago, Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards. To match that output this season, he's going to need, let's see, 2,002 yards over the final 15 games. The Patriots' run defense did an extraordinary job of preventing Johnson from stepping on the accelerator, with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo at the forefront as usual.
The most effective and dazzling back on the field Sunday wasn't Johnson, but his young counterpart with the Patriots, Stevan Ridley. The second-year back out of LSU piled up 125 yards on 21 carries while flashing everything you want to see out of a feature back -- elusiveness, power, speed, instincts, durability, consistency, tenacity, you name it.
Oh, yes, and he also didn't put the football on the ground, a habit that put an abbreviated end to his playing time last postseason. Maybe Ridley needed the offseason to mature and adjust and improve, but the player we saw Sunday really could have helped in Indianapolis in February. And he's going to help a lot this year as the breakaway threat dependable but limited BenJarvus Green-Ellis never could be.
First indication that the defense might actually make some big plays this year: At the 11:07 mark of the second quarter, rookie first-round pick Chandler Jones blew through a double team and strip-sacked Titans quarterback Jake Locker. Rookie first-round pick Dont'a Hightower scooped up the bouncing ball cleanly, made one sharp cut, and ran 6 yards (or two more than CJ2K's rushing output for the day) into the end zone for a score.
And suddenly, we were reminded for the first time in awhile what a young, playmaking defense can look like.
Now, I'm not saying Jones and Hightower should begin preparing their Hall of Fame speeches for Patriot Place yet, let alone Canton. But watching the two dynamic rookies make what was the pivotal play of the game, you couldn't help but pleasantly flash back to Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi doing something similar back when this run of excellent all began.
First cringe-worthy moment: I hate thinking this way, but I think this way, so I might as well admit it.
In the buildup to this game -- which pretty much began in June given the pathetic descent into irrelevance by the Red Sox this summer -- I couldn't help but ponder some ugly potential symmetry.
The Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Giants in 2007, then lost Tom Brady in the opener the next year.
The Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Giants in February, then ... well, nothing, thank goodness, and again, I hate even mentioning it, though I must admit it did not go unnoticed when the 7:27 mark of the first quarter passed without incident Sunday.
Not that Brady didn't take a few lumps. Brady briefly looked dazed and confused when he got belted from behind by the Titans' Kamerion Wimbley in the second quarter, his legs folding up like a card table beneath him, but all he ended up with was a bloody and possibly broken nose.
No real harm, and the only real foul is that there's a good chance the nose bandage he wore in his postgame press conference will become the next misguided fashion symbol for NBA stars next season. Russell Westbrook probably has Band-Aids stuck all over his face already.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.