FOXBOROUGH - Safety Brandon Meriweather was thinking what a national television audience watching “Monday Night Football’’ and the 68,756 fans inside Gillette Stadium were thinking most of the night: When are the Patriots going to start playing?
It took nearly four quarters for the Patriots and Tom Brady to put it together last night, but the result was a memorable 25-24 win over the Buffalo Bills, who ended up being foiled and being the perfect foils in Brady’s triumphant return.
Brady left no doubt about his comeback from torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee by leading a fourth-quarter comeback with a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Benjamin Watson that allowed the Patriots to open the season with a win and, at least for one night, overcome what could be the loss of middle linebacker Jerod Mayo.
Brady, who tied his career-high with 39 completions (in 53 attempts), threw for for 378 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He hit Watson with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 50 seconds to complete a comeback from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit and send the Patriots to their franchise-record 12th straight victory over the Bills.
“Well, that was an exciting night,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “You know it’s a great effort by our team. I’m really proud of the players, not that we played our best, but we hung in there and we kept playing down by 11 with four or five minutes to go in the game. We came back and made the plays we had to make to win. We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in that position very often.’’
What was supposed to be a celebration of Brady’s return after he injured his left knee in last year’s opener (Sept. 7, 2008) took a sobering turn for the Patriots early, when they lost Mayo, the quarterback of their defense, just six defensive snaps into the game.
Mayo was injured on a 16-yard run by Buffalo running back Fred Jackson that moved the ball to the Patriots’ 33. He walked off the field under his own power. The training staff examined his right knee on the bench. Brady, who may have been feeling some deja vu, watched as Mayo was attended to. Mayo never returned. The Bills scored their first touchdown three plays after he was hurt.
“Jerod is a great player. He is hard to replace,’’ said Meriweather. “I don’t know what’s going on. I haven’t went in there to check on him. Just to show that we have depth to do what we did shows a lot about our football team.’’
For a while it looked as if the Patriots would lose Mayo and the game.
They trailed, 24-13, with 5:32 remaining. Brady led them on an 81-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown toss to Watson, Brady’s first touchdown pass since Super Bowl XLII in February 2008. Brady was intercepted on the 2-point conversion try.
However, on the ensuing kickoff, Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin decided to bring the ball out of his end zone. He advanced to the 31, but was met by Meriweather and stripped of the ball by Pierre Woods. Stephen Gostkowski, who had made field goals of 20 and 28 yards but missed a 41-yarder, recovered the fumble at the Bills’ 31. Three plays later, Brady found Watson for the game-winner.
“I mean, that guy brought it out, and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ’’ said Woods. “I didn’t think he was going to bring it out. He brought it out. Brandon made a big hit, I came in and poked the ball out.’’
The Patriots defense answered the call on the final drive, sacking Trent Edwards twice to prevent the Bills from reaching field goal range.
The Patriots used a four-man line and switched outside linebacker Adalius Thomas inside to offset the absence of their defensive captain and keep the Buffalo offense out of the end zone in the second and third quarters.
But Mayo’s absence was obvious in the fourth quarter, when Buffalo went on a clock-killing drive that ended with a 10-yard screen pass for a score from Edwards to Jackson, putting the Bills up, 24-13, with 5:32 remaining, much to the chagrin of the stunned Foxborough Faithful.
The T.O.-Randy Moss duel never really materialized, as Terrell Owens had only two catches for 46 yards. Moss tied his career high with 12 receptions and had 141 yards.
The offensive outpouring from the Patriots that most expected also looked as if it wasn’t going to materialize.
With Brady back at the controls in a game that counted for the first time in 53 weeks, excitement was in the air, but the anticipation of No. 12’s return wasn’t matched by execution from the offense. The Patriots trailed Buffalo, 14-10, at halftime.
Brady’s first pass for a touchdown since his comeback wasn’t what he had in mind. Buffalo defensive end Aaron Schobel shed Matt Light on a screen pass and snagged Brady’s toss. Schobel then rumbled 26 yards to put Buffalo on top, 14-7, with 3:20 left in the first half.
While Buffalo’s preferred method of offense was the no-huddle, the Patriots methodically marched down the field to tie the score, 7-7, with 6:22 left before the half. Running back Fred Taylor capped a 14-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 7 minutes 12 seconds with a 1-yard touchdown run.
It wasn’t pretty for the Patriots, but it was a win.
“Those are mistakes that we can’t make again,’’ said linebacker Adalius Thomas, “but at the same time, it’s great that we overcame those mistakes at the end of the game and played good enough to win.’’