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Monday, September 8, 2008

Accepted, dreaded part of the game

Knee injury knocks out Brady; Patriots soldier on to victory

FOXBOROUGH - It's football, remember?

Football is a contact sport, a collision sport, a physical sport, a violent sport, a brutal sport, and, some might say, a barbaric sport. If American mothers had their way, there would be no football, at least none involving their precious sons. Injury in football is not surprising. It is inevitable.

Tom Brady has started 128 consecutive games, which, frankly, is beyond fortunate. No one knows this morning when he will start the next one because the greatest fear of every Patriots fan - not to mention the owner, the coach, and Brady's teammates - was realized with 7:27 left in the first quarter of yesterday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium when the whistle blew and Brady failed to get up.

And now there is a very real fear that he sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament - yes, the dreaded ACL - and has thrown his last pass of the 2008 season. Unless the Patriots choose to dabble in the free agent market for the likes of (hold your nose) Trent Dilfer, the new starting quarterback around here is Matt Cassel.

Brady had completed a 28-yard pass to Randy Moss, who wound up fumbling the ball. But those interested in the fortunes of the Patriots were not as concerned about the team's second such turnover of the first quarter as they were about the status of Brady, who limped off the field with what coach Bill Belichick confirmed was an injured left knee, not to be seen again.

"I was standing right there," said running back Sammy Morris, "and I couldn't help him up. It's a tough feeling, but it's part of the game."

It's part of the game.

It certainly is. Morris knows all about it. He sustained a sternum-clavicle separation in last season's sixth game and never played another down. He can empathize.

"You see the hurt on his face, and you feel the same hurt," Morris said.

The reigning league Most Valuable Player religiously had been placed (some say mischievously placed) on the weekly injury report by Belichick for more than two years with an unspecified right shoulder injury, and he had missed all four exhibition games because of an issue with his right foot. But what happened yesterday had nothing to do with a shoulder or a foot. It had to do with a blitzing Kansas City safety named Bernard Pollard being picked up by Morris and then, after being knocked to the ground, reaching out and grabbing Brady's lower left leg in an attempt to bring him down. Brady fell awkwardly, injuring his left knee.

Was it necessary for Pollard to do that? Most Patriots either didn't see the play or declined to express an opinion, but wide receiver Randy Moss was rather forthright.

"I don't really want to get into it," he said. And then he got into it.

"Me personally, I thought it was dirty," said Moss, who had studied the replay. "I've never been a dirty player. I honestly don't even know how to play dirty. I just play the game. It is not my decision. Hopefully, the league will look into it. If it's good, it's good. If it's bad, it's bad. They [NFL] will handle it."

Whether it was dirty, unnecessary, or extraneous, it happened, and the Patriots did not have time to call a team meeting to discuss and analyze the situation. There was a scoreless game that had more than 52 minutes left to play. Brady was gone, Cassel was going to be the quarterback, and that was that.

These men are professionals, and they have been trained to expect the unexpected. Other important players have gotten hurt during this glorious Patriots run, and the team always persevered. One of its most valued individuals even suffered a stroke, which was a very emotional situation to deal with. But life always went on, and so it would against the Chiefs.

"Football players are used to seeing guys get hurt," said guard Logan Mankins. "You've got to move on."

It all starts with the coach. Belichick has stood before the media countless times and discussed the necessity of people just "doing their job." So it was really no more complicated than that.

"We always have the feeling," explained linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the aforementioned stroke victim, "that the next person in line is prepared. Hopefully, he did his homework. Tom's Tom. He's our quarterback. But it's just, 'Who's next?' "

Who's next was Cassel, who has been the primary Brady understudy for four years, and who, if he's known for anything, is the curiosity who spent his entire time at Southern California backing up Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and thus has not started a regular-season game for anyone since his senior year at Chatsworth (Calif.) High School some time back in the late 20th century.

Let's be honest. The fans had no faith in Matt Cassel, especially after an exhibition season in which he had failed to generate a touchdown for the team, despite being given ample opportunity to do so. But he proved to be a perfectly adequate short-term replacement, going 13 for 18 for 152 yards, one touchdown (an acrobatic Moss grab at the back of the end zone), no interceptions, and, most notably, a signature play any Brady or Manning would have been proud to hang his hat on. For in his first series of downs, on third and 11 a half-yard from his end zone, he recognized a Moss improvisational theater breakoff of a route and hit the great wideout for a 51-yard gain.

If any teammates had doubted him, that play won them over. "That play showed he had a little something going right there, and everyone stopped holding their breath after that," said defensive tackle Ty Warren.

It was one play, and this was one game, and it was against the Chiefs, who should feel perfectly free to schedule family vacations for the month of January, 2009. But when it was all said and done the Patriots had 17 points and the Chiefs had 10 and the Patriots were the same 1-0 they would have been had an untouched Tom Brady thrown for 350 yards and four TDs.

"It's always about a team effort," Warren reminded. "A collective effort of guys contributing, whatever their job is. Tom is a big part of that. But, like I say, the game has to go on, with all due respect."

When Brady went down, it immediately became a losable game. The postgame reflections could have contained lots of couldas, shouldas, and wouldas. But there was none of that. The rest of them just did their job, and, no matter who happens to be the quarterback, they'll all head down to the Meadowlands with the same attitude next week against the Jets.

That's what true professionals do.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at