20 years ago this Thursday on Nov. 4, 2001, a rookie named Tom Brady clocked in the first truly elite performance of his career in a 24-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. In the week prior, Brady had choked away a fourth-quarter lead after he threw four picks in the final frame against the Broncos that led to a 31-20 loss. He had been able to complete 162 straight passes without an interception, an NFL record at the time before the erroneous throws.
Heading to the Georgia Dome both stood in somewhat similar positions, sitting at 3-3 and 3-4 respectively. Brady was set to start in place of the injured Drew Bledsoe, who had been knocked out of the lineup as a result of a nasty collision against the New York Jets’ Mo Lewis a few weeks earlier.
Early on in the showing, Brady looked composed and calm until an Antowain Smith fumble set up Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler to find former Patriot Shawn Jefferson in the endzone for an early score. The Patriots responded by driving down the field with minimal flak before Brady lofted an arcing pass to the side of the endzone where Kevin Faulk snatched the ball from over a defender and knotted the game up at seven.
Chandler and the Falcons trotted the offense back out, but the possession was not long-lived. An errant throw over the middle of the field gave way for an easy Otis Smith interception subsequently setting up an easy field goal for Adam Vinatieri, giving New England a three point lead.
Brady came back out with just under two minutes to go in the half, and did what he’s come to be known for: a late touchdown drive. He linked up with his favorite targets on consecutive deep passes, Troy Brown and David Patten, before a 15-yard pass to Marc Edwards extended the Patriots’ lead to 10 heading into the halftime break.
With the second half underway, the defense came alive with Willie McGinest sacking Chandler on a clutch third down stop to force a punt. Recovering from the fumble earlier, Smith returned to his rumbling self and churned out a nearly 30-yard rush to set the Patriots up in great field position as the quarter neared its close.
Easily the most impressive play of the day came with a little over 40 seconds to go in the third, when a deep pass intended for David Patten glanced off of a member of the Falcons secondary before bounding to Brown. Mirroring the “Immaculate Reception,” where the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Oakland Raiders in the 1972 AFC divisional round, Brown was clean through to the endzone for an easy six points.
An injury to Chandler forced the Falcons to trot out then-rookie quarterback Michael Vick for one of his first appearances in his NFL career after being drafted out of Virginia Tech. Unfortunately for Vick, his very first snap of the contest saw him flushed out of the pocket before he was swarmed by the Patriots defensive line and sacked.
Vick started to hit his stride with the fourth underway, finding Brian Finneran on a crossing route, before the wideout was stopped about twenty yards from the endzone. The Patriots defense remained stout and halted any Falcons advance, forcing a field goal. Getting the ball again, Vick showcased the speed that he would come to be known for, dodging New England’s tackles en route to a near 40-yard rush.
Again the rushing ability of Vick was on display, earning another first down after stiff-arming a Patriot defender. Bill Belichick and his side made sure the Falcons were not able to get out of the backfield as easily this time, blitzing the line and putting Vick on his back emphatically. The following fourth down, the Patriots blitzed again and forced an inaccurate heave from Vick.
With control of the ball, and four minutes to go, Brady burned the clock, driving down the field to ensure a 24-10 victory for the Patriots. With the win, Tom Brady’s 250 yards and three touchdowns were paramount in securing a positive result for a team still trying to adjust to losing their starting quarterback.
The performance from “The GOAT” as we now know him genuinely stirred quarterback controversy in New England for the first time in his young career. With news that Drew Bledsoe’s injuries were serious enough to have him taken to the hospital immediately after the hit that knocked him from the game, Brady’s tenure had been mentally extended for the near future by a majority of Patriots nation.