The 2008 season started as badly as the 2007 one ended. In the first quarter of the Patriots' opening game against the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, a low hit by safety Bernard Pollard left Tom Brady on the ground. Torn ACL, torn MCL, season over. While backup Matt Cassel did an admirable job, the 2008 Patriots were unable to make the playoffs, despite a highly favorable schedule and the majority of the 16-0 2007 squad still on the roster.
One man made the difference – and on opening day of the 2009 season, he would return to Gillette Stadium.
Coming back from a devastating injury, however, is not an easy task – no matter if it happens in front of a jubilant home crowd of nearly 70,000 people and in prime time against one of your rival teams. Not only is it a physical challenge but a mental one as well. And not even the greatest quarterback of his (and more probably than not any other) generation is immune to this pressure.
The early stages of New England's 2009 season opener against the Buffalo Bills made this clear.
Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense started their new year slowly. After a good kick return by Laurence Maroney set up the team at Buffalo's 49-yard line, New England only gained nine yards and was stopped on 4th and 1. The team didn't fair much better on its second drive, which ended when Mr. Automatic himself, Stephen Gostkowski, missed a 41-yard field goal. The Bills answered with a touchdown drive to make it a 7-0 game. The Patriots answered by going 3-and-out.
Brady's first quarter of live-action since returning from his injury was fairly pedestrian. Four completions on eight attempts for 28 yards. One sack, zero points on the scoreboard.
New England's passer and the unit surrounding him would fare better on their first drive of the second quarter, which was capped by a 1-yard Fred Taylor touchdown run to tie the game. Unfortunately, on New England's next offensive possession, Brady would be intercepted by Bills defensive end Aaron Schobel, who returned the football 26 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots answered with a 20-yard field goal but still entered the locker room down 14-10.
In the second quarter, Brady completed nine of 14 passes, for 130 yards and an interception. If not for the pick-six, his numbers would have been slightly better – but still way off from the lofty numbers Patriots fans have gotten used to in 2007.
The third quarter didn't start much better as the Patriots' first offensive possession stalled when Brady fired incomplete towards Wes Welker on 4th down on Buffalo's side of the field. To make matters worse, the team would soon find itself down 17-10. Early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots were able to cut the deficit to four points but the Bills, with 5:38 left in the game, scored a touchdown to again make the contest a two-score game. The Patriots were on the verge of starting the 2009 campaign with a loss.
However, thou shalt never count out Touchdown Tom.
Brady led the Patriots' offense on an 11-play, 81-yard drive in three minutes. All 11 plays were passes, nine of them were completed – among them the final one, an 18-yarder to tight end Benjamin Watson. Unfortunately, the duo was unable to connect on the subsequent two-point conversion. Patriots 19, Bills 24.
Still, the game was far from over. All that was needed was a defensive stop by New England... or a takeaway.
Leodis McKelvin's kickoff return was actually a good one, as he ran the ball back to Buffalo's 30-yard line. However, he was met there by linebacker Pierre Woods, who tackled McKelvin and in the process of doing so, knocked the ball out. The loose ball was recovered by kicker Stephen Gostkowski and suddenly the Patriots were in a very good position to win the game.
Three plays later, they did just that. After two short passes to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Brady went back to Benjamin Watson, this time from 16 yards out. The result was a touchdown (the two-point try failed again), which gave the Patriots their first lead of the night. Patriots 25, Bills 24.
Patriots 1-0, Bills 0-1.
Tom Brady's night at the office ended with the following stat-line: 39 of 53 passes completed, for 378 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. Brady, as he did many times before and after his 2008 knee injury, led his team back to win. And while he is a better, more confident player now than he was a year removed from the injury, his role and importance to the Patriots have never changed. He is the one to lead his troops to victory. He is the king, who returned to his castle on September 14, 2009. On Monday, he will have to defend it again. Against the same team, in the same spotlight.