EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The faces have changed for Tom Brady.
His clutch execution remains.
Clinging to a 24-17 lead with eight minutes remaining, the New England Patriots quarterback went to the line of scrimmage Sunday against the New York Jets facing the type of situation that has driven other great quarterbacks to distraction.
It was third-and-5 with the clock ticking past the 8-minute mark. There was plenty of time left, and the Jets had all the momentum after scoring a total of 17 points on their previous three drives. What had been a 24-0 rout suddenly was a game.
The Jets also were challenging Brady at a moment when he seemed vulnerable. He had thrown an interception and fumbled to contribute to the Jets comeback. Now, facing a critical down, the Jets defense was taking away his favorite weapons, such as wide receiver Troy Brown and tight end Ben Watson. Even third-down back Kevin Faulk was getting extra attention.
If Brady, who already was missing receivers Deion Branch and David Givens from last year, was going to work his usual magic, he was going to have to do it with a new partner. In this case, wide receiver Reche Caldwell was going to have to come through.
"I was getting one-on-one coverage," Caldwell said. "He saw it as we were coming to the line, and he changed the play right there to something that was coming to me."
Brady and Caldwell executed the play as if they had been partnered for years. Caldwell caught the quick hook for 6 yards, the first of four critical passes Brady hit during an 8-minute, 15-second drive that sucked the air out of New York's ballooning hopes.
The popular notion around the NFL is that Brady will take a step backward this season after losing Givens and Branch. Brady was particularly confident in Branch and spoke glowingly about the wideout following his trade to Seattle.
On Sunday, whatever sentimental notions that Brady had were buried, just like the relationship between New England coach Bill Belichick and Jets coach Eric Mangini seems to have been tucked away under a mound of dirt.
Belichick and Mangini, a Patriots assistant before landing the Jets job, fueled talk of their growing rivalry by celebrating their first game against one another with all the emotion of two tax attorneys discussing the relevance of a W-2 form.
That was to be expected. The Jets had upset New England by getting in on the contract talks with Branch before he ultimately was dealt. The Patriots responded by filing a tampering charge against the Jets last week.
On Sunday, the closest Belichick and Mangini got before the postgame handshake was about 40 yards during warmups. Not exactly terms of endearment stuff. After the game, their meeting was about as perfunctory as could be. They barely made eye contact as they grunted "good game" to each other and then turned away.
Afterward, Mangini was asked about Belichick six times before he finally mentioned his former boss' name.
"That's the last thing I've been thinking about over the course of the week," Mangini said about the reunion with his former boss. "I'm focused on our players and I'm focused on our team and that's it. It's green for me all day, every day. That's all I care about."
That and preparing for Brady.
For most of Sunday, Brady made the game look easy, remarkably so considering the massive change he's undergone. He completed passes to seven different receivers, including five on his first five completions. At the end of the half, Brady pushed the score to 17-0 by driving the Patriots 50 yards in 47 seconds.
Brady also helped build the confidence of rookie receiver Chad Jackson on that drive. Jackson let a deep pass by Brady slip through his hands when Jets cornerback Justin Miller distracted him. Two plays later, Brady went back to Jackson for the rookie's first touchdown reception.
This is not to say that Brady is back to his form of old. He completed only 15 of 29 passes for 220 yards and is off to a decidedly slow start from a statistical standpoint.
Still, the Patriots are 2-0, and when the game was truly on the line Sunday, Brady was ready.
"No matter what has happened, you have to make it work with the people you have around you," Brady said.
Said Caldwell: "He demonstrated his confidence in me at that point. That's important to me that he feels that. That's why I showed up here as soon as I could after I joined the team. I wanted to be on the same page with him."
At least on Sunday, he certainly was.