The extra work, it turned out, was hardly needed.
How silly to have thought that three days might not be enough time to get a rookie third-string quarterback -- whose last start came in something called the Belk Bowl -- ready to play against a playoff-caliber opponent. The wizard was standing nearby, after all, in his layered cut off sweatshirt, with a game plan that would humiliate a former assistant. It was also one that would confirm Bill Belichick might be able to win no matter who has to play quarterback, whether it is the future Hall of Famer in exile, or the No. 1 receiver posing as the No. 2 quarterback.
It all played out just a few hours before the clock struck midnight to ring in the 15th anniversary of the day that Mo Lewis knocked the Patriots into their future seems fitting. That was the start of this Patriots championship epic, but these last few weeks may be showing that the end won't be directly linked to Tom Brady's retirement plans. Quarterbacks who make their first career start under Belichick are now 6-0, the best mark in NFL history. Brissett wasn't a superstar, but he was serviceable and that was all the Patriots required.
Brady's four-game suspension was intended to be a trial for the Patriots. Instead, it has turned into a triumph for Belichick's incessant tinkering and an opportunity to take a long, soothing look at what might life after Brady leaves for good might look like. That the Patriots beat the Texans 27-0 should not, in hindsight, have come as a surprise. For all of Belichick's 16 years in New England, they have used the football equivalent of duct tape and safety pins to pry their way out of jams. Although, this first month of the season is destined to replace the entire Matt Cassel oeuvre as the starkest example of Belichick's facility to make something out of seemingly nothing.
"It's complete buy-in," said defensive lineman Chris Long. "Guys are willing to work and be selfless."
On Thursday night, the marvel was crafted with a handful of wrinkles added to the offense to take advantage of what Brissett does well, to keep the Texans on their heels. And so the Patriots ran the option and a naked bootleg that Brissett took for a 27-yard touchdown. Brissett finished with just 103 yards passing but no interceptions and he had 48 rushing yards. Brady had 53 rushing yards all of last season. Brissett missed some passes, especially downfield when he overthrew open receivers. But, remarkably, the Patriots did not seem to significantly pare down their offense under the circumstances. That is a credit to coaching and the preparation Patriots players often laud Belichick for.
"You've just always got to be ready," Brissett said. "Players just welcome you no matter who it is in the huddle. No one wavered. No one flinched. The results proved themselves."
The defense played back, to keep Brock Osweiler from throwing deep. The Texans did not get into Patriots territory until there was just 1:35 left in the third quarter. Special teams forced two fumbles on kickoff returns. Belichick, for all of his famous restraint, was practically ebullient after the victory, opening his press conference by saying how satisfying the win was. He then praised coaches for their work and players for their commitment. He also heaped praise on Brissett, a stark departure from a system that usually does not let rookies even speak from a podium.
"I think he handled himself great last week, this week, all week, every day," Belcihick said. "He's done nothing but come in here and work as hard as he possibly can -- when we had three quarterbacks -- to take his opportunities and learn from the other two guys, when it was him and Jimmy and then this week it was pretty much all him. He's just a hard-working kid that is really dedicated to doing what's right for the team and trying to improve on anything that you tell him. He just wants to do what the coach tells him to do. I'm glad we have him."
The Patriots play the wounded Buffalo Billsnext week and they may even have Garoppolo back to do it. Other teams might approach this differently, to be content with knowing they can win with Brissett, to know they are playing with house money, having won three of the four Brady-less games. But the Patriots will almost surely push Garoppolo and his injured shoulder to get ready if he can. To go 4-0 without Brady would be a singular achievement of teamwork and a pointed coda to the Patriots' ugly feud with the NFL.
After the game, a few hundred fans lined the railing while LeGarrette Blount was interviewed. They chanted "TB12, TB12," at once an incantation for their beloved quarterback and a taunt toward everyone else. The anger toward the league still simmers in New England even as the suspension draws to a close.
On Thursday, that chant seemed to miss the point. Though the Patriots have survived, even thrived in a way, without Brady. Brady has been the ultimate safety net, able to rescue the Patriots no matter their degree of peril. But with the net yanked away, the Patriots have found alternate ways of winning and a deep well of resilience and resourcefulness, neither of which they have to draw on for sustained periods when Brady is playing. Belichick has long since passed having to prove his brilliance. Finding them, though, should be a balm for the wounds the Patriots still feel were inflicted by the league. Something good, in the end, came of their strife -- a realization that there might be life after Brady. The Patriots certainly hope it is a long time before they need to use that knowledge again. But having it should be celebrated at least as much as Brady's imminent return.