Quarterback controversy? What quarterback controversy? The way Tom Brady played in Sunday night's thorough demolition of the New Orleans Saints, there would be no controversy in Foxborough if the Patriots had John Elway, Roger Staubach and Otto Graham on their roster.
In his first game after Head Coach Bill Belichick named him the starter for the foreseeable future, Brady was magnificent. He completed 19-of-26 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns without throwing anything even close to an interception. He was razor sharp as the game opened and he maintained it throughout a rainy night at Foxboro Stadium. The end result was a satisfying 34-17 defeat of a team many felt would simply out-physical the Patriots.
"Coming into this game everybody was talking about how tough and physical they were," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "We took that as an insult. We have some pretty tough guys in this locker room, too, and we wanted to come out and show them that we can hit people, too."
The Patriots did that effectively on both sides of the ball, controlling the line of scrimmage all game long. On offense, Brady handed the ball to Antowain Smith 24 times and watched his workhorse back pick up 111 hard-earned yards and a touchdown. Smith also caught three passes for another 42 yards, including a nicely executed 41-yard screen pass for a touchdown to open the scoring.
The defense was forced to make a slight adjustment while playing without inside linebackers Ted Johnson (knee) and Bryan Cox (leg). Belichick opted to go with four defensive linemen, which included a steady rotation of players up front. That pushed Tedy Bruschi inside as the middle linebacker and had Willie McGinest and Roman Phifer manning the outside spots.
That alignment faced the tall task of shutting down the NFC's leading rusher, Ricky Williams. The combination of solid defensive play and the Patriots potent offense took care of that. Williams gained only 56 yards on 15 rushes, with just five of those carries coming in the second half after New England rolled to a 20-0 halftime lead and took New Orleans out of its game plan.
"I told the players I thought that was a tremendous win today," Belichick said. "I thought they played their best football game of the year as a team. I thought the offensive line did an admirable job against a good front. It was a good win defensively. We made a lot of plays, played well in the first half and hung in there. I think it was a real good job by our team of bouncing back after the St. Louis game."
Indeed the Patriots were at their best against the Saints. Brady and the offense opened the game with an impressive 85-yard drive that featured clutch throws and hard running by Smith. Brady found Troy Brown (seven catches, 91 yards) for an 18-yard gain on third-and-three from the Patriots 22 to pick up a first down. He then got 16 more on a hookup with fullback Marc Edwards before Smith romped for a 3-yard gain down to the Saints 41.
On second-and-seven, Brady caught the Saints in a blitz and rolled to his right before floating a pass back to the left, where Smith was alone. The Patriots running back did the rest behind some effective downfield blocking and went 41 yards down the sideline for the touchdown.
The Saints had a chance to get that score right back when rookie Deuce McAllister returned the ensuing kick 37 yards to the Saints 48. A 14-yard pass interference penalty called against Terrance Shaw on the first play put New Orleans near scoring position at the Patriots 38. But the defense held Williams to 3 yards on two carries and then stopped quarterback Aaron Brooks short of the first down when he tried to scramble. John Carney's 48-yard field goal attempt missed wide right, and the Patriots kept a 7-0 lead.
Patriots punter Ken Walter pinned the Saints at their own 3 when Fred Coleman downed his kick, but Brooks escaped danger on the first play by hitting Joe Horn for a 50-yard bomb down the right sideline. New Orleans picked up two more first downs and once again moved into field goal range but was held off the board when Carney missed another, this one from 43 yards out. Carney came into the game having missed just one of his 23 attempts on the season.
After Adam Vinatieri missed a field goal of his own, the Patriots offense got untracked once again. Smith carried three times for 19 yards and Brady hit Edwards for a 12-yard gain to the Patriots 45. Two plays later the Patriots faced a third-and-five from the 50 when Brady looked for David Patten deep down the left sideline. Fred Thomas was called for pass interference on the play and the Patriots picked up 42 yards down to the 8. Brady found Brown in the back of the end zone on the next play for the touchdown. The extra point was botched when Walter had trouble placing the ball and then tried to pass to Grey Ruegamer in the end zone and the score went to 13-0.
The Patriots put the game away with an improbable two-minute drill that began as anything but a hurry up exercise. Brady was sacked on the first play and fumbled, which was luckily recovered by Jermaine Wiggins. Backed up at his own 15 and facing a second-and-17, Belichick opted to try to run out the clock and had Brady handoff to Smith. When his running back responded with back-to-back gains of 11 and 12 yards with 38 second left, the focus quickly changed.
Brady went to the hurry up and scrambled for 11 yards before calling timeout at his 49. He then drilled one to Patten for 27 yards to the Saints 24. After calling his last timeout with 17 seconds left, Brady hit Charles Johnson just inside the end zone and the Patriots had a commanding 20-0 halftime lead.
"I thought two of the biggest plays of the game were on that second-and-17 when Antowain ran it out of there for us," Belichick said. "That enabled us to get into the two-minute drive. That as much as anything was the spark there. Then I thought Tom's throw at the end to CJ was really big for us at the goal line."
Facing a huge deficit in the final 30 minutes, the Saints discarded Williams and went to the air. Brooks made his share of big plays – both with his arm and legs – but the Patriots defense slowed him down enough to maintain control throughout. Brooks threw for 307 yards but completed just 16-of-39 attempts and had two interceptions as well.
He was able to put some points on the board as the Saints desperately tried to get back into the game. Carney got the Saints going with a 31-yard field goal and then Williams made it 20-10 with a 3-yard run later in the third. Brady put the game away early in the fourth quarter by marching his team 80 yards on nine plays for a touchdown. Patten once again drew a key pass interference call, this one for 24 yards on Fred Weary, and Brady hit Edwards for a 2-yard touchdown and a 27-10 lead.
The teams traded late touchdowns – a 7-yard pass from Brooks to Willie Jackson and a 3-yard run by Smith – to create the final score.
"When we're able to run the ball and play-action pass, we're pretty tough to stop," Brady said. "That's our game. Getting the ball to Troy, who had another great game, using David Patten … that's what we need to do to get wins down the stretch and this was a great start."
As the season turns to its final month, the Patriots are very much in the playoff picture at 6-5. New England travels to the Meadowlands for a date with the 7-3 Jets, who are tied with Miami atop the division. A win there would create some highly anticipated games down the stretch and Brady will remain at the controls.
"We really haven't had a lot of changes here," Belichick said. "Tom started last week, he started this week and he'll probably start next week."
Using the word probably in that statement may have been the only mistake the Patriots made all night.