EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 17, 2011

Pats, Belichick getting back to Super Bowl roots

Bill Burt

FOXBORO — Ladies and gentlemen of New England, I'd like to introduce you to an old friend.

You probably didn't notice they were actually around until about 7:15 p.m. last night, when that old magical feeling of certitude, in the game's waning seconds, returned.

You know what I'm talking about. Tom Brady calmly flinging passes while the other 70,000 people around him are chewing their fingernails.

The New England Patriots are back.

Yes, the New England Patriots, warts and all, are back.

Brady's fourth quarter march through the Cowboys defense — 8-for-9, 80 yards, five first downs (he ran for one of them) — with 2:31 remaining was only the final dagger of the 20-16 win.

That's what will make the highlight reel.

But this was vintage Patriots football from the opening kick, with balance on offense and field goals on defense.

Yes, there were several huge mistakes — including two interceptions and two fumbles — but in the end those miscues were trumped by that trusty quality called mental toughness.

This is a trend, which, by the way, has coincided with the disappearance of Brady's surfer dude look. The Patriots, for the third week in a row, have tried, with much success, controlling the football.

That means more BenJarvus Green-Ellis and fewer four-yard passes to Wes Welker, who is developing into a deeper threat.

That means longer, slower drives, which in turn means longer rests for their up-and-coming defense.

In fact, one of the Patriots miscues — an Aaron Hernandez fumble in the third quarter — was on a 16-play drive. Do you think that might have tired Dallas defenders a bit?

The "perfection" thing was fun while it lasted. So were the 400-yard passing games.

But let's be honest, outside of the 1973 Miami Dolphins, nobody's perfect. We here in New England know that better than anybody.

When you're team appears to be too good to be true, it's too good to be true. Things happen in football, and a lot of it is bad.

It didn't look good for a while, particularly when Dallas took the lead, 16-13, in the fourth quarter and the Patriots went three-and-out in the next possession leaving it up to the defense with 3:36 remaining in the game.

Imagine this Patriots defense having to save the day in order for Brady to save the day?

"We talk about that a lot," said Patriots nose guard Vince Wilfork. "Bill (Belichick) has a saying about mental toughness when things are not going your way."

The Cowboys offense gained just five yards in its quick series, which lasted only 54 seconds, setting the stage for Brady.

"It really was a helpless feeling watching him at work," said Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

The irony is that during Brady's greatest statistical run as a quarterback, from 2007 through the first three games of 2011, which included MVP trophies in 2007 and 2010, we didn't see many of these kinds of fantastic finishes, particularly against teams as highly regarded as Dallas.

In fact, to the contrary. When Brady played well, the Patriots won. When Brady struggled, which wasn't often, the Patriots lost (see some recent playoff losses to the Jets and Ravens).

But last night wasn't just about Brady, who hit four different receivers on that last, winning drive.

"Their (receivers') timing was is awesome the way they run their routes," said Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh. "We had good protection back there sometimes. That five-wide (receiver offense) of theirs, you pretty much have to show your hand. Everything was pretty much short, middle of the field, running option routes. I guess that's what they do best."

Indeed.

It really was both boring and fun to watch. But in the end, the Patriots made the most plays when it mattered most.

"I remember those days," said the smiling Patriots receiver Deion Branch, who left here for four-plus years from 2006 through early last season. "Sure, (yesterday) reminded me of some great times we've had here. It's a great feeling."

The Patriots now get a break, a bye week, but more importantly they may have acquired an identity.

The Patriots may really be the Patriots again.