FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- David Ortiz was in a Tom Brady jersey. Wes Welker was in a Brady mask. There were reminders of what the New England Patriots were missing everywhere on Sunday: before the game against Miami even started, while the festivities were just beginning and before the latest blow was delivered. Then, before the first half was even over, the Patriots got a fresh dose of the kind of travail that usually visits other teams but which is an afterthought when Brady is on the field and not exiled to his sofa.
When Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonsoslammed Jimmy Garoppolo and his right shoulder to the ground with less than five minutes remaining in the second quarter, and Garoppolo winced and went down on one knee even as fans implored him to get up by chanting his name, the countdown to Brady's return began anew. Rookie third-stringer Jacoby Brissett, who did not play even one snap with the first team in the preseason, was in the game, charged mostly with protecting the lead Garoppolo had built and closing out the 31-24 victory.
But the luxury the Patriots had enjoyed for the first six quarters of the season is over. There was no forgetting Brady's absence in New England, of course. But Garoppolo had played so well in leading a road upset of Arizona in the season opener and was even better in burying the Dolphins in the first half -- including his second touchdown pass of the day when he held the safety on the left side of the field with his eyes, before whipping to the right to find tight end Martellus Bennett up the seam for a 20-yard score -- that the sting of Brady's suspension had at least been soothed by the prospect that the Patriots might go 4-0 without him and get a haul of draft picks if they ever decide to trade Garoppolo.
The Patriots probably don't have time to get a lighthouse-sized poster of Garoppolo made this week, and we're going to hear a lot about how smart Brissett is and how much time he has spent by Garoppolo's side as just the two of them were entrusted with the first month of the season. But the Patriots have a short week before a meeting with J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans on Thursday night. And now the Pats face the prospect of having to bring in another quarterback to back up Brissett, because he is, for now, the only healthy one available. With Garoppolo, who finished 18 of 27 for 234 yards and three touchdowns, unlikely to suit up against Houston because of a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder, it seems nearly certain Brissett will have to start against the Texans and possibly against the Bills in Week 4.
"We'll do whatever we think is best for the team," head coach Bill Belichick said after the game. "Jacoby -- look, he's been working for this for a long time, all the way back into the spring, all the way through training camp. He's gotten a lot of reps. He did a good job; pressure situation, played two and a half quarters and he did a good job for us."
The Patriots' straits will likely elicit an eye roll from teams around the league for whom this kind of quarterback crisis comes with more than once-a-decade frequency. They, after all, get Brady back in three games and they are 2-0, already up two games on Buffalo and Miami and one up on the Jets. They have done that without Rob Gronkowski or Rob Ninkovich, with a shuffled offensive line that opened holes that allowed the Patriots to bleed the clock -- and despite a defense that leaked so suddenly in the second half Sunday that the Dolphins were in position to tie the game with under 10 seconds remaining before Ryan Tannehill's last-gasp heave was picked in the end zone.
But losing a quarterback is a gut punch, and even in the "Do your job" locker room mostly scrubbed of emotion, it was clear the Patriots felt, however fleetingly, the deflation of Garoppolo's injury.
"Any time you see your quarterback hurt, your heart drops for a second," receiver Chris Hogan said. "Obviously, I hope it's nothing serious and he can make a speedy recovery. That's tough. At the end of the day, you have to move on. Preparation is key. We're going to get back here and watch the film and we're going to prepare just like Jimmy was preparing."
And so Brissett, the third-round pick who was 17-13 as a starter at North Carolina State with 43 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, is up. After halftime, when, presumably, the Patriots had a chance to collect their thoughts and formulate a plan for Brissett, they went 68 yards for a touchdown, a scoring drive which included a series of screen passes and LeGarrette Blount runs. After that, the most impressive drive the Patriots had was the one that led to no points but took five minutes off the clock late in the fourth quarter.
"I felt prepared and did enough for us to secure the win," said Brissett, already saying as little as any seasoned Patriots veteran.
"[Brissett is] young, so you've got to let him feel his groove," Edelman said. "I'm proud of him and I look forward to preparing with him. He's very mature and poised. Especially for a millennial."