FOXBORO – Coming out of the two-minute warning, the Patriots were nursing a seven-point lead and had the ball at their own 27 facing a second-and-8.
The Texans, with all three of their timeouts, needed a stop and the Patriots offense – having managed just two field goals in the second half – needed to make something happen.
Tom Brady took the snap and looked for Rob Gronkowski. Covered. Brady kept wandering around, shuffling a little, running left, waiting for Gronk to uncover. He couldn’t. Finally, Brady looked to the right sideline and ripped a dart to fullback James Develin in the flat. Develin pulled it in – his career-high fourth catch of the day – and the Patriots gained 10. The Texans had to burn all their timeouts before they got the ball back at their 1-yard line with less than a minute left and the game concluded with minimal drama after that.
There’s a lot to glean from that one play. First, the 41-year-old Brady showed a mobility he didn’t really possess earlier this decade. Second, all the arm strength and accuracy that’s supposed to be waning as he approaches the much-discussed “cliff” is still there. Third, there’s nobody else Brady wants to throw to ahead of Gronk and that’s because no receiver he worked with in his 19 years in the league has been better to him. Fourth, James Develin with the game on the line? Not Jordan Matthews or Kenny Britt or Eric Decker or Malcolm Mitchell, all of whom washed off the roster in the past month. Brady was throwing to the fullback when he couldn’t find Gronk. And he made it work.
The Patriots are 1-0 because they played really well on defense and capably protected Brady most of the game. But more than anything else, they’re 1-0 because their two work-to-rule renegades – one of whom they tried to trade in April, the other who they hoped to replace with Jimmy Garoppolo – are still here.
And wherever this team goes this season, it will arrive there thanks to Brady and Gronkowski. That’s the inconvenient truth behind it all. Worry about the punt return game. Worry about the linebackers. Worry about the running backs, wide receivers and tight end depth. But don’t worry about the most potent offensive combination in the game.
They will show up and take care of their business when it matters. And Brady will make sure that, no matter who he’s given, he’ll go to the whip if he has to.
A moderately downcast Brady said after the game he doesn’t have the luxury of grading on a curve and giving out smiley-face stickers for good effort to the new pieces around him. The expectation level can’t be “pretty good for a new guy…”
“I think that’s the point of playing football,” Brady said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, this guy, this is what his level of expectation is. That’s what we should put the team’s expectation at.’
“It’s ‘If you’re playing in the slot, you’ve got to play as well as any slot receiver we’ve ever had. If you play on the perimeter, you’ve got to play as well as any receiver we’ve ever had – tight end, quarterback, running back …’ And guys can play up to that. I think you can’t sit there and coach or communicate and go, ‘Oh, well, that’s OK because you’re not quite there yet.’ I mean, I think you’ve got to coach hard and you’ve got to correct guys and you’ve got to correct yourself and have high expectation for yourself, and that’s how you have high expectation for the team.”
Brady threw to Gronkowski eight times on Sunday, completing seven for 123 yards and a touchdown. Gronk also picked up a 14-yard pass interference in the first half.
Even though everyone on the planet knew that blanketing Gronk was the key to slowing down the Patriots offense, Brady was hell-bent on going to the player he trusted most.
Even when he was blanketed as Gronk was late in the first half when Brady found him for a big gain.
“I was running up the seam,” Gronk explained. “I had two guys on me and when I saw the ball in the air I literally thought first thing, ‘What is Tom thinking? When that ball was in the air I had a guy grabbing me and I was just like, ‘I’ve just got to go for it.’ I can’t let them make a play on it, so just went up for it, made the catch. I did make the catch. I don’t know how. When I went to the ground I had it stable in my hand, so it was definitely a catch, but Tom went up to the line really quick just to make sure.”
A message was sent by Brady on Sunday with those throws to Gronkowski, intentional or not. That message was, “Don’t forget what we’re capable of. Don’t underestimate us. Don’t worry about us taking care of our business. Don’t wish us away.”
Was it received? Well, it was interesting to hear Bill Belichick speak of them in more laudatory language than he’s used in a while.
“That’s two great players,” said Belichick. “Both have a lot of skill, both very good at what they do. They don’t need a lot to complete passes. We see that every day in training camp and in practice. They’re both really good. Rob’s hard to cover and Tom can put the ball where only Rob can get it and Rob can get a lot of those. I’m glad we have them. They’re both great players.”
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