FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Tom Brady doesn't do mediocre.
That's not what all those long rehab sessions and months of preparing for his return to the NFL were about. So while Brady's performance was pedestrian for much of Monday night's season opener, when the spotlight was at its most intense, he lived up to the advance billing.
It seemed to take forever, though.
A year after being sidelined with torn knee ligaments, Brady resembled a rusty game manager more than the invincible record-setting quarterback who guided the Patriots to a perfect 2007 regular season. Yet, he threw two touchdown passes in the final 2:06 as New England beat the Buffalo Bills 25-24.
"I felt good all night, we were just off,'' Brady said. "The plays we needed to make - fourth downs we missed, third downs we missed, two chances in the red area, the interception - those things really get you behind the 8-ball. We recovered with just a few seconds left. Sometimes it happens like that.
"It's a pretty special victory.''
Brady needed help in the form of Leodis McKelvin's fumble on a kickoff return after the Patriots pulled within five points.
Placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, of all people, recovered at the Buffalo 31. Brady needed three plays before hitting Benjamin Watson over the middle for the decisive 16-yard touchdown with 50 seconds to go.
"We have a real competitive locker room, a real competitive team,'' Brady said. "When you're in a situation like we were, it's when you really have to step it up. It takes every guy on the field to step it up. Hopefully, we will continue to do that.''
Just 1:16 earlier, he found Watson on a similar play for an 18-yard score. It was vintage Brady, who threw for a record 50 TDs two years ago in leading New England to a perfect record.
"Two-minute drives always are fun for a quarterback,'' Brady said. "Spread it out, the pass rush gets a little tired, you get a feel for the coverage, you just have to be patient.
"I'm glad it's over, glad we are moving on, got a win, and we'll learn from it.''
That unbeaten season was spoiled in Brady's last full game that counted, the February 2008 Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. He was hurt in last season's opener.
Now he's back, although for much of the game he and the Patriots played conservatively, even passively. Indeed, Buffalo seemed ready to break an 11-game losing streak against New England and win for the first time in Gillette Stadium.
Then came the late fireworks, demonstrating that Tom Terrific hasn't lost his touch.
"That's not how we drew it up, but I'll take it,'' Brady said. "We did a lot of things poorly, but we got the win.''
Buffalo did a lot of things well, but got a shocking loss.
"I chose to bring it out because that's me, no matter what it is,'' McKelvin said of the lost fumble. "If I had that choice, probably 100 times, I'd do it again.''
Coming off a 1-4 preseason in which the offense flopped, the Bills made plenty of big plays.
Trent Edwards outperformed Brady for much of the game and threw for two scores. A 10-yard screen pass TD to Fred Jackson put Buffalo ahead 24-13 with 5:32 to go - even though its new spotlight-grabber, Terrell Owens, barely caused a ripple. Owens had two catches for 46 yards, then refused to speak about it after the game.
When the offense wasn't doing the damage, defensive end Aaron Schobel was rambling 26 yards with an interception for a first-half TD.
"The interception was a really bad play,'' Brady said. "You can't do that. You learn from them, get focused and concentrate on what you have to do.''
Still, these are the Patriots, who have not lost a regular-season game with Brady at quarterback since Dec. 10, 2006. And they still have all those threats in the passing game, from Randy Moss (12 catches, 141 yards) to Wes Welker (12, 93) to tight end Watson (6, 77, two TDs).
Although Brady had those impressive stats, he never looked deep and struggled to convert key plays until the final moments. Perhaps that big hit he took on his shoulder from Albert Haynesworth 2 1/2 weeks ago limited Brady. And maybe his team was uncomfortable in the throwback red uniforms or being introduced as the Boston Patriots for the first of the NFL's tribute games to the old AFL. Something wasn't right in Foxborough - until the end.
"It has nothing to do with his layoff,'' Moss said. "I think it's just first-game jitters. I'm not making an excuse, we just had to settle down and get to playing football the way we know how.''
NOTES: Buffalo's other touchdown was an 11-yard reception by Shawn Nelson. Rian Lindell added a 40-yard field goal. ... Gostkowski had field goals of 20 and 28 yards, but only one extra point because the Patriots failed on two 2-point tries after their late touchdowns. ... Fred Jackson, filling in for suspended starting RB Marshawn Lynch, had 57 yards rushing and 83 receiving for Buffalo. ... Bills LB Paul Posluszny broke his arm and DE Chris Kelsay hurt his knee. ... Patriots LB Jerod Mayo, the 2008 Defensive Rookie of the year, injured his right knee.
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