FOXBOROUGH – Oh, by the way, they still won the game.
Granted, it took a goal-line stand in the final minute to get it done, but the New England Patriots managed to survive not just the Kansas City Chiefs, but also the loss of the NFL's reigning MVP, Tom Brady.
In the post-game Patriots locker room, all anyone wanted to talk about (and rightfully so) was the knee injury to their starting quarterback, who left the game after throwing just 11 passes.
"Obviously, you try to stay concentrated on the game, but at the same time, you're looking at your starting quarterback and your friend out there and hoping and praying that he's OK," wide receiver Wes Welkersaid.
He wasn't. Needing help from two trainers, Brady limped off the field and into the locker room. He never returned.
Into the huddle stepped backup QB Matt Cassel.
"We had some come-to-Jesus talks there for a little bit," Welker added with a smile.
"The running backs," Laurence Maroneyobserved, "we just looked at each other like, 'OK, let's step our level of play up.'"
And they did, particularly reserve ball-carrier Sammy Morris.
After a Kansas City punt put the ball at New England's 2-yard line, Cassel was faced with 98-yards of open field to navigate. He got half of them on one play, a perfectly lobbed pass to wide receiver Randy Moss on third-and-11. Standing in his own end zone and facing an intense Chiefs pass rush, Cassel hung tough and made the throw to Moss, who was brought down 51 yards later.
"It was nice to get out of the end zone and get going, get that first pass out of the way and to have a nice completion like that," said Cassel. "Randy made a great move to get on top of the guy and I just tried to put it in the vicinity. He did a great job coming down with the ball."
"When I came off the ball I saw the corner and the safety squat, meaning they had their feet flat-footed," Moss revealed. "I just thought I would try and make a play. I cut my route off and just went deep."
"I was thinking in my head, 'Good shot, Cassel!'" Maroney laughed.
Morris helped picked up the bulk of the remaining yards on that drive with a combination of runs and receptions. On third-and-8 from the Chiefs' 10, Cassel found Moss in the back of the end zone for the score.
Cassel's next two drives were threes-and-out, but in the third quarter, he led a six-minute march that ended with Morris diving into the end zone for a five-yard touchdown. Morris ended the afternoon with 10 carries for 53 yards (which led the team) and five catches for 34 yards. It was Morris' first regular-season action since the Dallas game last October, when he suffered a season-ending clavicle-sternum separation.
"I felt good," he noted afterwards. "It's been a long time for me … a long time coming."
Cassel finished with a respectable 13-for-18 and 152 yards passing. He also scrambled four times to pick up good yardage when needed.
"I think he did pretty good for a guy who y'all thought should have gotten cut," Welker remarked, taking a jab at the media for their criticism of Cassel during the pre-season.
Despite a solid performance by Cassel, the Patriots only led 17-10 late in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs, who also lost their starting QB, Brody Croyle, to a shoulder injury, nearly tied the game when former Patriot Damon Huardtook control of the Kansas City offense and brought his team down to the Pats 5-yard line.
They got there on a short pass to receiver Devard Darling, who looked like he had nothing but open field ahead of him as he raced 68 yards. But out of nowhere can cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who only signed with New England six days ago. O'Neal's hustle ended up saving the game for the Pats.
"He just made a play. Hats off to him, he did a wonderful job and put them into scoring position," O'Neal offered later. "I was just thinking, 'Get him down so we don't go into overtime. Get him down, get him down. We can stop them.' Once I got him down we had four downs to try to stop them."
And that's what the Patriots defense did, thanks again to a heads-up play by O'Neal.
On fourth-and-goal from the 5, Huard looked for receiver Dwayne Bowein the end zone, but O'Neal was there again to knock the ball away.
"You know, that's just a gut-check," he said. "It's the last play, fourth down, you know they're going to pass it. Nine times out of ten it's either going to go to [tight end Tony] Gonzalezor [Bowe]. [Bowe] was on my side. I was thinking, 'This ball is coming to me, this is a gut-check. I've got to play my part and play my position.'"
O'Neal also contributed on special teams, spelling Welker on punt returns in the second quarter (Welker said that was part of the game plan going into Sunday's game).
But it was Cassel's play that garnered the most attention because it's unclear how long New England will be without Brady. The players say they're prepared no matter the extent of Brady's injury.
"That's what we gotta do," Welker observed. "Cassel's more than prepared to get the job done. He showed that today. Whoever's back there, everybody's gonna go out there and do their job."
"Most definitely," Maroney agreed. "You've got to. You can't cry over spilled milk."
"We can't be too worried about it," defensive endTy Warrenexplained. "We definitely have some concern because he's a leader on this team. He has helped lead us to a lot of wins over the years. So there will be some concern, but … whatever the case may be, we have to play next Sunday."
And next Sunday will be a big one, with or without Brady – it's Brett Favreand the New York Jets in the Meadowlands.