Tipping his cap and bidding farewell to a bustling table of family and friends at a restaurant in Boston's Back Bay last Friday, Tom Brady walked out into the New England night and looked skyward. As if on cue, the first flakes of a nasty nor'easter drifted downward. Flashing his best Jimmy Stewart smile, the one that melts hearts from Hyannis Port to Hollywood, the New England Patriots' quarterback climbed into his Cadillac Escalade and zoomed off toward his suburban town house, blissfully engaged in a wonderful life.� Nearly 48 hours and some 24 inches of snowfall later, Brady's charmed existence was on display again, this time for a rowdy gathering of 45,378 at Gillette Stadium in frigid Foxborough. With the Patriots leading the Miami Dolphins 10-0, two minutes remaining and his team facing fourth-and-10 from the Miami 37, New England coach Bill Belichick called for an alignment specifically tailored for this situation: a formation called Gun-Two Flood, Zing, Gap-Left Quick Kick. Brady lined up two yards deeper than he normally does in the shotgun, took the snap from Dan Kop-pen and, drawing on his experience when he was a high school punter in the mid-1990s, kicked the ball toward the north end zone. It took a high bounce inside the 10 and then, as though it were on a string, softly settled at the 1.
With that, as backup quarterback Damon Huard later noted, "Tom's legendary status around here grew another notch. I mean, we worked on that play in practice on Thursday, and he shanked his first one so badly we all booed him. Then you put him on the big stage, and you know the guy's going to give you that magic."
Four plays later New England defensive end Jarvis Green sacked Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler for the safety that punctuated the Patriots' 12-0 victory. Then the fans, in a spontaneous display of choreography, threw handfuls of snow into the air to the beat of Gary Glitter's Rock 'n Roll, Part 2. "That," said Brady, "is what four hours of tailgating and three hours of watching football in the cold will get you."
Indeed, Gillette Stadium was a winter wonderland on Sunday, and the rest of the AFC had best take note. On an afternoon of crucial divisional clashes around the league (accompanying boxes), the Patriots (11-2) made the biggest impression. They clinched the AFC East title and, with the Kansas City Chiefs' 45-27 loss to the Broncos in Denver, got the inside track for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. (The Pats hold a tiebreaker edge on the 11-2 Chiefs.)
The buzz in greater Beantown is warranted because Brady and his hardy bunch have, improbably, shaken off a staggering start and positioned themselves for a second title run in three seasons. It has been two months (four games) since the Patriots gave up a touchdown at Gillette, where they've outscored their last four opponents by a combined 50-9, and winter just came in like a lion with a toothache.
"We just won a division title, and we don't think it's the last championship we'll win this year," said linebacker Mike Vrabel, who led a suffocating defensive effort with a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. "It was huge to give our fans something to remember about this blizzard. The scary tiling is, we haven't played really well yet, and I can't wait until we do."
In subduing the Dolphins (8-5), who were coming off a 40-point outburst against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, the Patriots played well enough against their division rivals to win their ninth consecutive game. It was a day ruled by defense, a sharp contrast to New England's 38-34 victory in Indianapolis the previous week. On Sunday, even in defeat, which came amid swirling winds of up to 30 mph, not all of the Dolphins were blown away by the Patriots. "They've got a rabbit's foot, a horseshoe or something in their pocket," said defensive tackle Larry Chester, "because it seems everything went their way."
Ah, Lady Luck. She seems to watch over the Patriots, a perception dating to the infamous Tuck Rule call the last time a snowstorm hit Foxborough on game day, in January 2002. That ruling negated an apparent Brady fumble and allowed the young quarterback a second chance to pull out a playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders, thus extending a season that would end with his collecting the Super Bowl MVP trophy after New England's upset of the St. Louis Rams. Last year, Brady's second as a starter, the Pats leveled off with a 9-7 campaign that left them out of the playoffs, further stoking the skeptics who viewed their championship as a fluke.
This year? Well, in addition to sweeping the Dolphins, New England has been fortunate enough to beat the Eagles, Titans, Broncos, Cowboys and Colts for a 7-0 mark against teams with winning records. The Patriots have started a league-high 42 players because of injuries, and five opening-day starters (including pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, their marquee free-agent signee) are on injured reserve. "We are a very resilient team," said cornerback Ty Law, who had one of New England's two interceptions on Sunday. "We're not making any excuses about the injuries or all the questions that came after the thing with Lawyer." That would be Lawyer Milloy, New England's Pro Bowl strong safety and its popular defensive captain, released five days before the team's season opener against the Buffalo Bills when he refused to take a pay cut. The next day the Bills swooped in and signed Milloy to a multiyear deal. Dazed and confused, the Pats shuffled off to Buffalo and got pounded 31-0.
The stunning sequence was especially tough on Brady, who couldn't help but take Milloy's departure personally. In the days before the move Brady had lobbied team owner Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan, the franchise's vice chairman, not to release his friend and teammate. After the move was made, Brady bluntly expressed his displeasure to Belichick. "It was a difficult time," Brady says. "I had never been through something like that before, and it really drove home the point that this is a business."