As he peered at the giant video screen at the south end of
Foxboro Stadium late last Saturday night, New England Patriots
quarterback Tom Brady was hoping for a miracle. The scene was
already eerie. A storm had blanketed the frozen field with three
inches of white powder, which had fallen throughout the game and
was still swirling in the cold wind. The magical season of Brady
and the Patriots appeared to be over, their hopes for a
potential game-tying score in an AFC divisional playoff dashed
by a jarring hit on the quarterback with 1:43 left in a 13-10
game against the Oakland Raiders.
As the crowd of 60,292 fell silent, Brady stood stoically on the
sideline. He was looking for the evidence that would give
referee Walt Coleman reason to change what had been ruled a
fumble to an incomplete pass, for proof of what Brady believed
to be true: that he had begun his throwing motion and started to
pull the ball back only when he was hit by blitzing Raiders
cornerback Charles Woodson, his former Michigan teammate.
Brady's spirits skyrocketed as the replay showed him doing
precisely that, and in his excitement he raced up to New England
offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and shouted, "We're getting
the ball back! What play do you want to run?"
The Raiders would say they were robbed, and they do have a point
(more on that later). What they didn't have and would never find
was an answer for Brady, the second-year player who rose from
fourth string last season to Pro Bowl golden boy in 2001.
Seemingly oblivious to conditions that had players slipping and
sliding all over the field, Brady moved the Patriots into
position for a game-tying field goal. ("I didn't worry about the
weather," he said, "because it's hard enough worrying about what
the defense is trying to do.") Then, after New England received
the kickoff in overtime, he completed all eight of his passes,
helping set up Adam Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal. With their
16-13 win the Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game
against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The ascent from AFC East cellar-dweller last season to Super Bowl
contender has been astonishing. During a season in which the
Patriots found improbable ways to pull out victories, it seemed
fitting that they would rally, in a snowstorm, from a 10-point
fourth-quarter deficit to pull out the most important--and
unlikely--win of them all. "You can't say enough about the way
this team has handled adversity," said left guard Mike Compton.
"We play hard and we play together, and sometimes we get lucky.
But you know what they say: Sometimes luck is better than skill."
One of those times is when your season is hanging in the
balance. On the controversial play Coleman decided after looking
at replays that Brady's arm was still going forward when the
ball came loose. Maybe so, but Brady also appeared to be pulling
the ball back toward his left hand when Woodson popped him.
League officials pointed to Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, which
says that a passer who has begun to bring the ball forward can't
be deemed to have fumbled if he hasn't tucked the ball into his
body. Coleman followed the letter of the law, but you can bet
the NFL Competition Committee will take a hard look at 3.21.2 in
the off-season. "We didn't lose this game," said Oakland
linebacker William Thomas. "It was taken from us."
The reversal gave the Patriots hope, but that's all they would
have had if not for Vinatieri. His game-winning kick was
anything but a foregone conclusion, even after the Raiders had
called a timeout, allowing New England players time to clear a
patch of frozen ground on which he could set his plant foot and
kick. So imagine the task he faced as he lined up for a
45-yarder to tie the game in the final minute, clock ticking
down, snow swirling, no time to do any spruce-up work on the
field. "I kind of line-drived it," Vinatieri said in somewhat of
an understatement. "I knew it was straight enough. I had to wait
awhile to see if it was long enough."
It was, so despite the Raiders' relatively error-free play--they
committed no turnovers and were penalized only four times--they
were headed for an overtime in which they would never get their
hands on the ball. If they could be faulted for anything, it was
their inability to keep Brady in check. Going into the game
Oakland's strategy was sound: Stop the run, and crowd the middle
by blitzing or by dropping linebackers into coverage. The
thinking was that the field outside the hash marks was too slick
for receivers to maneuver. (New England's wideouts had slipped
repeatedly while running near the sidelines in pregame drills.)
In the first half Brady threw for only 74 yards with one
interception, and the Raiders built a 13-3 lead through three
quarters, holding running back Antowain Smith to 65 yards rushing.
However, when the Patriots went to the no-huddle in the fourth
quarter, Brady caught fire. Starting at his own 33 with 12:29
left, he completed nine straight passes, then capped the drive
with a six-yard scramble for a touchdown. Overall, Brady was 32
of 52 for 312 yards, but he was at his best when the game was on
the line. From the fourth quarter on he was 20 of 28 for 138
yards, including a handful of completions along those slippery
sidelines. "Every quarterback loves the two-minute drill," he
said. "Earlier in the game I was seeing a lot of [defensive]
looks. But once we went to the no-huddle, they had only three or
four calls, and I knew what to expect."
In many ways the game was a return to form for Brady. Pressed
into duty when Drew Bledsoe went down with a chest injury
against the New York Jets on Sept. 23, Brady responded by going
11-3 as the starter over the last 14 games. He had been pressing
in his last five outings, though, throwing for only two
touchdowns with five interceptions. "You could really see it in
our last game," Smith said of a 38-6 win over the Carolina
Panthers. "He was trying to make perfect throws and sneak the
ball into tight coverage. We kept telling him to take what the
defense gave him and let us help him do the work."
"I look at the start of my year, and I had success because the
coaches gave me a game plan and I executed it," Brady said. "But
as the season went on, I'd look at the game plan and say, 'I
like this play,' like some 10-year veteran. I lost my focus. I
wasn't doing the things that made me successful, but I've gotten
back to that. I'm more decisive again, and when I see something,
I fire the ball in there."
The Raiders found out as much, and now they have to live with a
call that "will be all people remember about this game years
from now," said Thomas. Not exactly. New England fans will
remember the last game played at Foxboro--the Patriots are
moving into new digs next season--as another chapter in an
improbable season orchestrated by the unlikeliest of leaders.