ATLANTA -- Were he playing baseball, Tom Brady would almost certainly be known as the consummate stopper, the bellwether of a pitching staff and the guy counted on to halt any kind of losing streak with a quality start under any manner of duress.
Lucky for the Patriots that Brady opted to fire spirals instead of sliders as a livelihood. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, the New England star still qualifies for stopper status, as he demonstrated again Sunday afternoon.
Just a week after being unceremoniously drilled by the San Diego Chargers, at home no less, the two-time defending Super Bowl champions rebounded with a tension-filled victory over an Atlanta Falcons team that played well despite the absence of quarterback Michael Vick, who sat out with a sore right knee.
In trumping the Falcons 31-28 on a 29-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with just 17 seconds left, the Patriots used a battle-tested, two-pronged formula: Put the game in the right arm of Brady and on the right foot of the player who currently reigns as the league's most clutch kicker. But if Vinatieri has ice water in his veins, then Brady's heart certainly must pump some sort of special coolant through his entire body.
"The man," said wide receiver Deion Branch, "has no [qualms], no conscience, no fear. If it's on him, he's not going to let us lose, you know? Losing one game, that kills him, and he's not about to let us get into any kind of [losing] streak. It's like he lives for these kinds of moments, these kinds of games, for a chance to not let things get out of control. The thing about Tom is, he always plays like he is in control, like he just isn't about to let the situation get out of hand."
In uncharacteristically firing back publicly at the seemingly innocuous comments of Marty Schottenheimer this week -- the Chargers' coach suggested last Sunday, after his team dealt the Patriots their most lopsided home defeat since November 1998, that the Patriots' injuries might have finally caught up to them -- Brady set an emotional tone for a team that was wounded physically and psychologically.
According to some players, his outburst helped the Patriots regain some of their misplaced swagger.
More important than his words, though, were Brady's deeds in Atlanta. His contributions -- 22 of 27 passes completed for 350 yards, with three touchdowns and just one interception -- were like a tourniquet on a hemorrhaging gash.
The two-time Super Bowl most valuable player, who might be the most irreplaceable performer in the entire league, is now 12-4 in games following losses. He has not lost consecutive games as a starter since 2002, when all four of the defeats came, and Brady is 6-0 after losses since the start of the 2003 season.
In the 16 games after losses, Brady has completed 355 of 562 attempts for 3,977 yards, with 32 touchdown passes, just nine interceptions and a gaudy 96.6 passer efficiency rating. Brady has thrown for 250-plus yards in eight of those games and has three or more scoring passes in six of them. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this year, following a loss at Carolina, he threw for 372 yards. So in the two outings after losses this season, Brady has thrown for 722 yards in helping New England to avoid a two-game losing streak.
Brady exploited Atlanta's secondary all day, picking mercilessly on cornerbacks Jason Webster and DeAngelo Hall, and taking full advantage of safeties Keion Carpenter and Bryan Scott, arguably one of the NFL's worst interior secondary tandems. Webster was lost at times, and one has to wonder about the $7 million signing bonus given last spring to a guy who seems to always be infirm or out of position. The team's best coverage player, Hall continues to be turned around at times by clever, double-move wideouts like New England's Branch and David Givens.
The Falcons, who led the NFL in sacks through four games, got to Brady just once, and the lack of pressure meant he could dump the ball to open receivers off of quick drops.
"It's what we're supposed to do," said Brady, eluding the perpendicular pronoun "I" in the same manner he has dodged a losing streak over the past 38 regular-season starts. "I think we just play the offense the way it's supposed to be played. But we do need to get a little more consistent."
Brady was consistently on target Sunday, his accuracy more than Vinatieri's foot the primary reason the battered Patriots, playing with two rookie starters on the left side of the offensive line, nudged themselves over .500 again, at 3-2. New England scored on its second possession of the game and its first series of the second half, and even though the Falcons rallied from a 15-point deficit to tie the game with 3:52 remaining, everyone in the Georgia Dome probably foresaw the way the day would conclude.
Actually, the most significant play on the Patriots' game-winning 53-yard drive was a 30-yard pass interference call on Atlanta nickel cornerback Allen Rossum, who blatantly yanked down Branch on a pass play where the receiver was open. But earlier on the possession, Brady kept the drive alive with a third-down completion to the clever Branch, and then, after the interference call, he managed the series nicely to set up Vinatieri's winning chip shot.
At one point in the third quarter, after Brady had opened the second half with 10 straight completions, the Patriots quarterback was 18-for-20 in the game, and one incompletion came on a drop. The streak was snapped when Atlanta linebacker Demorrio Williams picked off a pass that was tipped by a rushing lineman. At no point in the game did Brady, who completed his first seven passes and 9 of his first 10, have consecutive incompletions.
It helped, too, that New England's rushing attack, which entered the game rated last in the league, suddenly found its legs. With Corey Dillon rambling for a season-best 106 yards, the Pats actually outrushed the Falcons, the league's top running offense, 141-116. But the Patriots, even with former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis having departed, are still about throwing the ball, and few throw it as well as Brady.
"It's about distributing the football for us," coach Bill Belichick said. "People are open, and Tom delivers the ball. We don't plan to go to one guy or another. We plan to move the ball, to get it to open people, and to score points."
On Sunday, it was mission accomplished, and in all three areas. The Patriots offense rang up 483 yards, Brady completed passes to nine different receivers, and New England's 31 points were a season high.
Notable was that, with the local media questioning the lack of production from New England's tight ends, the position was key on Sunday. The top two tight ends, former first-round choices Daniel Graham and Ben Watson, entered the game with just seven receptions and 113 yards between them in four contests. Working against the deplorable Atlanta safeties, and taking advantage of matchups against the linebackers as well, Graham had five catches for 119 yards and a score, and Watson had one catch for a 33-yard touchdown.
Graham's 45-yard catch-and-run late in the first quarter was brute power, as he got a bone-jarring block from right guard Stephen Neal on a throwback screen, rambled up the right sideline and pancaked the overmatched Scott on his way to the end zone. The Watson score came when he beat linebacker Ike Reese deep up the right seam to finish off a lightning-quick, two-play drive that also featured Graham's 45-yard catch on a play when he was singled up on middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell in a mismatch.
Graham and Watson, who were on the field together for 31 of New England's 58 snaps (by unofficial count), also played key roles in the Patriots' resurrected running attack. The game plan apparently called for the two to be used extensively, even flexed out in multi-receiver sets, and they blocked nearly as well as they caught the ball.
"I think all the talk about 'Where have the tight ends been?', maybe we quieted some of it today," said Watson, one of two former University of Georgia stars to score touchdowns for the Patriots (running back Patrick Pass being the other). "I thought we were playing well before today. But we stepped up and made big plays today and people always remember the big plays and overlook some of the little things you might be doing well."
New England, which continues its death-march schedule by visiting Denver next week, will have to start doing some of the little things well, too, though, to have an opportunity for the NFL's first Super Bowl three-peat. The Patriots dropped two interceptions, and given the shaky nature of their secondary, they can't afford to squander such chances. At one point, the Pats were forced to blow a timeout because the safeties were unsure of where to line up. They were flagged 11 times for 83 yards in penalties, several of the miscues scuttling promising possessions.
At least the Pats didn't have to cope with Vick, whose sprained right knee kept him in street clothes, a decision made by coach Jim Mora that angered the quarterback. Vick, who had treatment late into Saturday night but who could not shake the soreness from his knee, claimed he didn't know he wasn't playing until he arrived at the Georgia Dome.
"It takes something away from them, I'm sure," said Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. "But I'm not about to feel sorry for teams that have injuries, not with what we've had."
Remember, this is a Patriots team playing without five defensive starters from its Super Bowl XXXIX victory, with the two rookie offensive linemen, with the last strip of duct tape, it seems, holding some spots together. The secondary really is a mess, as reflected by the fact Falcons backup Matt Schaub threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns, and there is barely a semblance of a pass rush.
What there is, though, is the coaching genius of Belichick and the clutch play of Brady, two guys trying to will this team to wins until some of the wounded get healthy. On Sunday, they succeeded.
"It's some positive momentum for us," Graham said. "You don't want to get going the other way, and it's been a long time since we've lost two in a row. Now we have to try to keep it going. We have to turn this into the start of a winning streak."
Mostly because of their stopper, who was actually selected by the Montreal Expos in the 18th round of the 1995 baseball draft, they've got a shot.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.