FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For a few weeks, it had felt like perhaps it was time to finally believe our eyes when the New England Patriots played. Maybe they really had been outclassed in personnel; maybe the one person who had elevated the Patriots for 13 years, no matter how dire their straits, was himself slipping just enough that the whole enterprise was about to come crumbling down.
Rob Gronkowski saw something else entirely -- and he, after all, has a front-row seat. In a jubilant and relieved locker room late Sunday night, after the Patriots' 43-17 thumping of the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, Gronk relayed a conversation he'd had with one of his brothers just before he left for Gillette Stadium, in which he'd shared his intentions for the evening.
"I'm going to make 12 look like Tom Brady again," Gronkowski said he told his brother. "And I went out there with my teammates, and we made Tom Brady look like Tom Brady, after you guys were criticizing him all week, the fans, everything. And it feels so good. He's such a leader. He went over 50,000 yards (passing for his career). He's an unbelievable player. I'm so glad to play with him."
Gronkowski is like your family's puppy, almost unfailingly unfiltered and happy. His was a rare moment of candor from a Patriots player, providing a small peek into a team that had clearly heard the questions and doubts mounting outside its doors following last Monday's 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Gronkowski was smiling as he told his story, obviously jubilant that the Patriots had allowed Brady to be Brady again, but his voice was also thick with emotion, a sign not only of what Brady means to Gronkowski personally but also of the toll the past week took on everybody.
"After the first couple games, we were a little shaky," he said. "It's great to come back strong and show he's still a young buck and has a lot left in his tank."
Even before Gronkowski spoke, Sunday night was a reminder that we probably should have balanced what we thought we'd seen in the first month of the season with what we know we've seen Brady do time after time: tap into the well of anger that has bubbled deep inside him since he was taken late in the 2000 NFL Draft. That well has remained there through the Super Bowls and the supermodel wife, and it still churns whenever he senses doubt. So on Sunday, Brady was the slighted sixth-round pick again, possessed of a ferocity that was absent when New England's offense was struggling through unfamiliar hardships to be the 29th-ranked unit in the league.
On the Patriots' first drive of the night, Brady ran three times, including one of his routine quarterback sneaks on fourth down, and it was hard not to feel that Brady was going to get this done if he had to do it himself -- which he still might have to do. It was, after all, the first instance this year in which the team did not go three-and-out on its first possession of a game. Brady still inexplicably missed some passes that he regularly makes. There remains scant sign of a vertical attack; other than Julian Edelman, good luck finding a wide receiver Brady has timing with and trust in.
But for the first time all season -- and notably, against a Bengals squad that had seemed like the NFL's most complete heading into this contest -- the Patriots looked like a semblance of their old selves, rising to a critical occasion on a big, prime-time stage with an unusually raucous crowd chanting Brady's name.
New England's offensive line, in shambles until now and at the root of Brady's difficulties, was transformed either by time together or effort, allowing the offense to pound the ball early and ultimately opening holes for 220 rushing yards while giving up just one sack. Gronkowski's return to health -- and he insisted after the game there should be no more questions about his fitness -- is an obvious component of Brady's rising confidence, as was the emergence of Timothy Wright (the tight end for whom New England forsook Logan Mankins in August's trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), which allowed the Patriots to harken back to the powerful two-tight end sets they'd thrived with when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were working together. On Sunday, Gronkowski and Wright pulled in nearly half of Brady's 23 completions for 185 yards and two touchdowns. The total offensive numbers (505 yards), passing yards (285) and rushing yards were all season highs, snapping a three-game streak in which the Patriots did not break the 300-yard barrier.
Last week, Brady looked exhausted and allowed a trace of his angst to show when he answered a question about the talent level around him with a shrug and a "we'll see" -- hardly the rote endorsement you might have expected. Brady denied Sunday night that there is tension between him and coach Bill Belichick, but he didn't try to pretend that there was no weariness, of the chatter and of the losing. Brady draws on what he still remembers as a slight when he requires motivation, but there was no need to invent a humiliation this week.
"It's hard to be oblivious to things," Brady said. "We all have TVs or the Internet, or the questions I get and the emails that I get from people who are concerned. I'm always emailing them back, like, 'Nobody died. It's just a loss.' "
And this was just a win. The temptation now will be to assume that the Patriots are back to being one of the league's most dominant teams, but that would be as big a mistake as concluding that Brady was finished last week. The defeat of the Bengals meant that, though it is only Week 5, there are no unbeaten teams left -- which is as sure an indicator of the instability and week-to-week nature of the league as there is. Consider also that the Patriots won by 26 points six days after losing by 27. That is the NFL in a nutshell.
New England is susceptible to more of that, too, and to what will surely be continuing questions about its playoff viability. That, in reality, is all that matters for this team -- not the game-to-game toiling in the fall, but how it takes form heading into January. Next weekend's matchup with the Buffalo Bills will, shockingly, be played with the AFC East lead on the line, and as weak as the division looks, it is also hard to imagine the Patriots pulling away from everyone else in the conference. If they made a statement that they are not dead yet, they are also nowhere near the peak they hope to reach, leaving them facing a series of weekly street fights -- unless or until Belichick manages to unearth some magic in the roster he has compiled.
The Pats' locker room was a noticeably more relieved place Sunday night, the strain of the week dissipating for everyone, from the star quarterback to the most junior administrative helper. But even if there is no tension with Belichick, it would be hard to blame Brady if he looks around and wonders about the personnel the Patriots have surrounded him with, particularly if he casts a glance west and compares his supporting players with the mother lode of talent John Elway has stocked on the Denver Broncos' roster for Peyton Manning, whose visit to Foxborough is just a month away and which is an annual barometer for both teams.
After Sunday, though, Brady probably has a modicum of additional confidence in his shape-shifting offensive line, and in the offensive play-calling. The Patriots were called out en masse last week with a completeness that has been rare since Brady emerged in 2001. Belichick dealt with it with his flat-lined "on to Cincinnati" mantra, but Brady's approach has always been more visceral -- his stylized, cardigan-wearing exterior belying the fierceness of his drive even late in his career.
The last time someone doubted him this deeply was more than a dozen years ago. Brady might not have as much gas in the tank as he did then, but by channeling the kind of balanced play the Patriots used to have and the snarling anger those past slights produced, he and his teammates refreshed themselves for the long fight ahead as they try to hoist themselves out of their own twilight.
"To ride the ups and downs of, 'You're great. You suck. You're great. You suck,' it's exhausting," Brady said. "It's exhausting enough when you're winning to have to deal with those things, and when you lose, it sucks for everybody."