Who cares about making a good first impression?
Evidently, Tom Brady doesn't.
The New England quarterback, who committed two turnovers in his first five snaps, recovered in a big way Monday night by leading the Patriots to a 30-26 victory over Denver with a last-minute touchdown drive.
Two minutes after his team took an intentional safety to keep its slim hopes alive, Brady directed a dramatic 58-yard drive that he capped with an 18-yard touchdown pass to David Givens for the victory -- the seventh in eight games for the Patriots (7-2).
"There were a lot of things we didn't do very well tonight," Brady said. "But the thing about this team is sometimes we're down, but we're never out."
The decisive play wasn't the one called in the huddle. Brady and Givens improvised once they broke the huddle and saw what kind of defense Denver was showing. Brady threw the pass to the back shoulder of Givens, who spun and caught cornerback Deltha O'Neal badly out of position.
"I was going to jump up and make the play regardless," Givens said. "I was either going to jump over him or catch the back-shoulder throw. Tom made a great throw and basically I just tried to capitalize on it."
It was a superb coaching decision that put the Patriots in position to win in the first place. Slightly more than two minutes earlier, they were trailing by one and looking at a fourth and 10 on their one-yard line.
Instead of calling for a punt, Coach Bill Belichick opted for an intentional safety. Lonie Paxton purposefully launched the snap so high over punter Ken Walter's head that the ball glanced off an upright.
The safety gave Denver a 26-23 lead and the ball back. But the Broncos allowed the ensuing free kick to dribble to their 15, putting them in difficult field position with two minutes 46 seconds left.
The Broncos (5-4) couldn't get a first down, had to punt the ball back, and failed to shut down Brady when it mattered most. He completed four of five passes on the winning drive.
"We didn't win it on our side of the ball," Denver linebacker Al Wilson said. "The offense did their job. They put points on the board, but we didn't get it done."
Denver players have some time to stew in that disappointment; they get this week off, as do the Patriots. Both teams could use the rest. The Patriots have been so banged-up this season that they have started 40 players. The Broncos are hobbled too. Not only are they down to third-string quarterback Danny Kanell -- who played very well against the Patriots -- but they are missing starting left tackle Ephraim Salaam; linebackers John Mobley and Ian Gold; and now kicker Jason Elam, who suffered a strained groin on a successful 43-yard field goal in the second quarter.
The Broncos should get some players back after the week of rest, presumably No. 1 quarterback Jake Plummer, who is recovering from a broken foot. Still, this loss won't sit well.
"Obviously, this was a tough game," Coach Mike Shanahan said. "I think we know history. A lot of teams have been 5-4 and a couple Super Bowl teams in the last two years have been 4-4 and have still been able to get it done. So that's on the positive side. Right now, obviously, it's a big disappointment not finding a way to win that game."
The Patriots had their share of frustrations too. They were flagged 14 times for 85 yards, more penalties than any other game in the Belichick era. They surrendered 111 yards on the ground to Clinton Portis, the first running back to rush for 100 yards against them this season. And, at halftime, the coach threw a fit that still had players buzzing after the game.
"I thought we played terrible in the first half," Belichick said. "I thought it was just awful. It's a miracle that we were as close as we were. We played a lot better in the second half."
A beaming Bob Kraft, who owns the Patriots, emerged from the locker room after the game and called it one of the biggest victories in memory.
"This is huge for us," he said. "We're all gunning for the playoffs, and we might see this team down the road. Having this head-to-head experience is really important."
Bumpy beginnings are nothing new for the Patriots, who won the Super Bowl in 2001 after overcoming a 1-3 start. They opened this season by losing at Buffalo, 31-0.
"We make it as hard on us as we possibly can," defensive end Mike Vrabel said. "You've got to believe that the game's not over. We see games every week that are decided in the last minute. The NFL is too close, it's too tight. If you make the right plays down the stretch, you have a chance to win."