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Romo came into the game off the worst performance of his brief career, a six-turnover disaster in a miraculous Monday-night win over Buffalo that kept the battle of unbeaten teams alive. Romo is nothing if not resilient. On Tuesday he passed his roommate, Tom Brewer, in their Dallas condo and told him, in reference to the Bills game, "After a while, I just started laughing to myself because I figured it couldn't get any worse." By Wednesday evening he was wrestling with friends to burn calories before the next day's team weigh-in.
Romo certainly improved on his Buffalo performance. After missing on four of his first five pass attempts, he went 17 for 24 and finished with 199 yards and two touchdowns and only one interception, to Junior Seau late in the game. It's just that Brady was much better, not just statistically but also palpably.
Romo has unabashedly borrowed from the best quarterbacks in the game, copying Manning's ball fakes and practicing Brett Favre's off-balance deliveries. On Sunday, Brady gave him a long lesson in sheer dominance under incessant heat—the Dallas defense sacked Brady three times, equaling his total from the first five games of the season, and knocked him down several other times. Brady was not so much efficient as tenacious. Setting the tone for the day, the Patriots converted nine of their first 11 third downs (two came on penalties), including Brady's first two touchdown passes. "Tommy is a competitor," said Faulk afterward. "That's the thing people forget about him."
For the second consecutive week an opponent mostly took away Moss (who nevertheless still leads the league in receiving yards, with 610). Brady's response was to complete a combined 18 passes to Welker and Stallworth. After the Cowboys assumed their only lead of the game, 24--21, on Romo's eight-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton with 10:20 left in the third quarter, New England scored on three consecutive possessions; a 69-yard touchdown pass to Stallworth with 12:21 to play stretched the Pats' lead to 38--24 and essentially iced the game.
While Brady's teammates no longer marvel at his greatness, they clearly respect the work that makes it possible. "First one into the facility every day, last one out," says Koppen. Adds Stallworth, "He works like a quarterback who hasn't even made the team yet." Once a sixth-round draft choice, always a sixth-round draft choice. Brady is on pace to throw 56 touchdown passes this season, which would obliterate Manning's record of 49. Already a lock for the Hall of Fame, he continues to play as though he has to validate his paycheck.
In the dying minutes of Sunday's game, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan, the team's president, stood near the southwest corner of the field. A cluster of fans in New England jerseys made all the noise there was in the emptying stadium, and the Krafts waved to them. At the finish Belichick was among the last to run from the field, jogging into the tunnel while clapping his hands above his head and pointing to the stands, acknowledging the road-warrior fans in the corner.
It is indeed early in the season, but for every team in the NFL other than the Patriots and the Colts, it is also quickly getting very late.