As he peered at the giant video screen at the south end of Foxboro Stadium late last Saturday night, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hoping for a miracle. The scene was already eerie. A storm had blanketed the frozen field with three inches of white powder, which had fallen throughout the game and was still swirling in the cold wind. The magical season of Brady and the Patriots appeared to be over, their hopes for a potential game-tying score in an AFC divisional playoff dashed by a jarring hit on the quarterback with 1:43 left in a 13-10 game against the Oakland Raiders.
As the crowd of 60,292 fell silent, Brady stood stoically on the sideline. He was looking for the evidence that would give referee Walt Coleman reason to change what had been ruled a fumble to an incomplete pass, for proof of what Brady believed to be true: that he had begun his throwing motion and started to pull the ball back only when he was hit by blitzing Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson, his former Michigan teammate. Brady's spirits skyrocketed as the replay showed him doing precisely that, and in his excitement he raced up to New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and shouted, "We're getting the ball back! What play do you want to run?"
The Raiders would say they were robbed, and they do have a point (more on that later). What they didn't have and would never find was an answer for Brady, the second-year player who rose from fourth string last season to Pro Bowl golden boy in 2001. Seemingly oblivious to conditions that had players slipping and sliding all over the field, Brady moved the Patriots into position for a game-tying field goal. ("I didn't worry about the weather," he said, "because it's hard enough worrying about what the defense is trying to do.") Then, after New England received the kickoff in overtime, he completed all eight of his passes, helping set up Adam Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal. With their 16-13 win the Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The ascent from AFC East cellar-dweller last season to Super Bowl contender has been astonishing. During a season in which the Patriots found improbable ways to pull out victories, it seemed fitting that they would rally, in a snowstorm, from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull out the most important—and unlikely—win of them all. "You can't say enough about the way this team has handled adversity," said left guard Mike Compton. "We play hard and we play together, and sometimes we get lucky. But you know what they say: Sometimes luck is better than skill."
One of those times is when your season is hanging in the balance. On the controversial play Coleman decided after looking at replays that Brady's arm was still going forward when the ball came loose. Maybe so, but Brady also appeared to be pulling the ball back toward his left hand when Woodson popped him. League officials pointed to Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, which says that a passer who has begun to bring the ball forward can't be deemed to have fumbled if he hasn't tucked the ball into his body. Coleman followed the letter of the law, but you can bet the NFL Competition Committee will take a hard look at 3.21.2 in the off-season. "We didn't lose this game," said Oakland linebacker William Thomas. "It was taken from us."
The reversal gave the Patriots hope, but that's all they would have had if not for Vinatieri. His game-winning kick was anything but a foregone conclusion, even after the Raiders had called a timeout, allowing New England players time to clear a patch of frozen ground on which he could set his plant foot and kick. So imagine the task he faced as he lined up for a 45-yarder to tie the game in the final minute, clock ticking down, snow swirling, no time to do any spruce-up work on the field. "I kind of line-drived it," Vinatieri said in somewhat of an understatement. "I knew it was straight enough. I had to wait awhile to see if it was long enough."
It was, so despite the Raiders' relatively error-free play—they committed no turnovers and were penalized only four times—they were headed for an overtime in which they would never get their hands on the ball. If they could be faulted for anything, it was their inability to keep Brady in check. Going into the game Oakland's strategy was sound: Stop the run, and crowd the middle by blitzing or by dropping linebackers into coverage. The thinking was that the field outside the hash marks was too slick for receivers to maneuver. ( New England's wideouts had slipped repeatedly while running near the sidelines in pregame drills.) In the first half Brady threw for only 74 yards with one interception, and the Raiders built a 13-3 lead through three quarters, holding running back Antowain Smith to 65 yards rushing.
However, when the Patriots went to the no-huddle in the fourth quarter, Brady caught fire. Starting at his own 33 with 12:29 left, he completed nine straight passes, then capped the drive with a six-yard scramble for a touchdown. Overall, Brady was 32 of 52 for 312 yards, but he was at his best when the game was on the line. From the fourth quarter on he was 20 of 28 for 138 yards, including a handful of completions along those slippery sidelines. "Every quarterback loves the two-minute drill," he said. "Earlier in the game I was seeing a lot of [defensive] looks. But once we went to the no-huddle, they had only three or four calls, and I knew what to expect."
In many ways the game was a return to form for Brady. Pressed into duty when Drew Bledsoe went down with a chest injury against the New York Jets on Sept. 23, Brady responded by going 11-3 as the starter over the last 14 games. He had been pressing in his last five outings, though, throwing for only two touchdowns with five interceptions. "You could really see it in our last game," Smith said of a 38-6 win over the Carolina Panthers. "He was trying to make perfect throws and sneak the ball into tight coverage. We kept telling him to take what the defense gave him and let us help him do the work."
"I look at the start of my year, and I had success because the coaches gave me a game plan and I executed it," Brady said. "But as the season went on, I'd look at the game plan and say, I like this play,' like some 10-year veteran. I lost my focus. I wasn't doing the things that made me successful, but I've gotten back to that. I'm more decisive again, and when I see something, I fire the ball in there."