Tom Brady has managed to survive the punishing onslaught of 127 consecutive regular-season and playoff games, behind only Peyton Manning and Brett Favre in all-time longevity. Brady has played through sports hernias, taped-up knees, a separated shoulder injury that has lingered for years.
And so, for the first few minutes of the first quarter, it was refreshing to see him at the helm again, maybe dinged up but stubborn and bull-headed as ever, stepping up in the pocket despite the vulnerabilities he might be hiding and the relative shakiness of the offensive line in front of him.
This is the main thing Brady brings to the field for Patriots fans - the assurance, in his eyes and in the eyes of those who play with him, that Someone is In Charge. For the first and, so far, last moments of his 2008 season, we got to relax long enough to think that once Randy Moss and Wes Welker improved at hanging on to the ball, we'd be rolling.
Instead, it was Bernard Pollard rolling, over the pile and into the flexed left knee of Brady as he stepped up into the rush to send one down the sideline to Moss. Which Moss dropped. And recovered. But the CBS cameras were already swinging back to where Brady lay, writhing on the field.
I am not a squeamish person, but I had to look away as the announcers, audibly excited at a new development to hype and rehash, replayed the collision in macabre slow motion and dissected it in ever-more-florid language.
Once the initial AUGH and ARGH and DO NOT WANT subsided, however, there emerged a sense of inevitability about this turn of events. We've been lucky with him, and he is, in reality, probably overdue for something like this. Even before today, that seemed to be something the team was acutely aware of, as Bill Belichick seemed to be paying special attention to the quarterback depth chart from the very beginning of the preseason. Until today, it was Brady's right foot that had become, as one of the CBS sportscasters put it, "the most-studied right foot in New England since Curt Schilling in 2004." Almost no one has a career of any length in the NFL without experiencing something like this - and Brady is so long overdue, we were already thinking about it.
We've been so blessed over the last six years that it also seems gauche to act like this is the end of the world, especially before we receive any word about the severity of the injury or its long-term implications.
It didn't hurt, either, that Matt Cassel picked today to put it all together. After Brady went down, the second-stringer who'd struggled through the preseason, led the team on his first scoring drive yet, and a 10-play, 98-yard drive at that. In the third quarter, Sammy Morris powered another scoring drive. The defense was also buckling down more effectively than they had in exhibition. There is, after all, more to the team than Brady, more to this team than any one player, and it's important to remember that.
Seeing the numb look in Brady's eyes as trainers inspected his knee, seeing him gathered back up off the field again and helped to limp toward the sideline...watching every snap, crackle, pop and twist on that knee in the slow-motion replays...it's the worst-case scenario for any fan. No matter how many times I watch a guy I've rooted for, grown attached to, laid out on the field, and then helped off it humbled and grimacing in pain, it doesn't get easier to watch. No matter who it is.
And when that guy is your franchise quarterback, you can multiply that feeling by a hundred.
Conflicting emotions were also the order of the day on the defensive side of the ball, which put together some gritty series and held the Chiefs to 10 points. Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison in particular played like animals, and Vince Wilfork was an oak tree in the middle of the defensive line. I still believe the front of the Patriots defense is its strength, though there was encouraging improvement from the secondary today.
That is, until the fourth quarter. With about a minute to go, second-year safety Brandon Meriweather seemed to lose track of Devard Darling, who caught a pass and stretched the play deep into Patriots territory. Only a touchdown separated the teams from overtime. "There goes my guy, somebody else got him?!" my dad spoke for Meriweather in frustration as he was shown on the TV replay.
The good news: The goal line stand was successful.
The bad news: Only out of sheer luck.
The ugly: With the ball floating precariously in front of two Patriots and a Chief right at the goal line, Meriweather, flat-footed again, watched the ball fall to the ground. My dad provided another voice-over: "What the heck is that brown thing?"
The Patriots won this game. But is that really the bottom line? Maybe most weeks it would be. But the play of the day, which could have ramifications for the rest of the league, for the rest of the year - hell, possibly even for years to come - happened in the first quarter of the Patriots' season. They held on to their lead and began that season with a victory, but left the field with more questions than anyone has answers for.