FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The game was never in doubt. The football? Now that properly inflated football was in doubt.
This one was over at the coin flip Sunday when Jacksonville elected to play. The Jaguars had no intention of stopping the Patriots offense. They had no intention of stopping Brady. They had no intention of stopping Julian Edelman. They had no intention of stopping Rob Gronkowski. They had no intention of stopping LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis or anybody else in blue.
After Brady found Danny Amendola cutting through the middle of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds left in the first half of the Patriots' embarrassing 51-17 rout of Jacksonville, Amendola faked a throw, picked out a husky fan in the front row of the stands and handed him a souvenir.
Whoops. That was the ball Brady had just thrown for the 400th TD pass of his career. Only three others had ever reached that milestone and nobody more quickly. The videoboard at Gillette Stadium flashed the news. The 66,829 fans broke into a chant of "Brady! Brady! Brady!"
"We've got great fans," Brady said. "It was great. It was a special day. I've been a part of so many great teams and played with so many great players. I've always said I don't care whether we run it in or we thrown it in as long as we score points and we're winning."
But what about the magic ball?
It turns out a ball boy was able to retrieve it. I didn't have my binoculars with me, but presumably neither recently reinstated John Jastremski nor Jim McNally, the two at the center of Deflategate, got the ball back. That would be a hoot though, wouldn't it?
"I didn't realize it until halfway back to the sidelines that I gave the 400 ball away," Amendola said. "But we got it back, and Tom got it, so it's good."
Brady broke into a laugh when asked if he was upset with Amendola.
"I don't care," Brady said. "It's just a ball. Danny can do whatever he wants."
The hard truth is the Patriots could do whatever they wanted all Sunday. Commissioner Roger Goodell should have shown some real wisdom, picked up the phone and ordered the game stopped when Brady hit 400. The Jags were already bloodied and beaten by halftime. Rule it a TKO. But, no, the rule is they have to press on, and by the time it was over, Brady had thrown No. 401, a 13-yarder, to Keshawn Martin and the Patriots had tied a franchise record of 35 first downs.
In case any Pats fans were worried if Brady would still be affected negatively after Judge Richard Berman's decision to overturn Brady's four-game suspension for using under-inflated balls in the AFC title game, fear not.
After his 33-for-42 performance for 358 yards and two touchdowns, Brady stands at 96-for-136 for 1,122 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He is off to the best statistical start of his career. His 96 completions through three games is the most in NFL history.
"I'm happy with 3-0," Brady answered, when asked if this is the best he has ever played. "So, thank you."
And he left the podium.
Brady's not going to say it. Brady wouldn't say it. So Rodney Harrison said it the other day on WEEI. The former Patriots defensive back said Brady is out for vengeance. He has to be. At 38, you wonder about some of the things that still motivate him. The pursuit of perfection, to be sure, and a fifth Super Bowl ring. Like coach Bill Belichick, the need to keep after it, to keep improving even after all these years and all the championships, remains insatiable. But, somewhere inside of him, you have to believe Brady burns to show Goodell, the NFL, the other fans in all the other NFL cities who are convinced the Patriots cheat, that he can still light it up — fair, square and properly inflated.
"It's an honor to be out there and play with him," said Blount, who ran for three touchdowns. "It's crazy to be playing with the best quarterback to ever play the game. And he's not done."
Brady, of course, would be more satisfied with Edelman's response.
"Par for the course," said Edelman, who caught eight passes for 85 yards. "Tom works his tail off, and everything he does, you understand why [this game is par for the course]. You congratulate him on No. 400, and you think about the next series. It's an unbelievable accomplishment, and you're not surprised."
You know how some coaches will not let a reporter go home without filling his notebook? Rex Ryan has been one of them in the NFL. Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma have been two of them in Connecticut. Belichick isn't one of them. Not even close.
"Good overall team effort," Belichick said. "Proud of the way they practiced, prepared and played."
On to Dallas in two weeks. Drive home safely.
This is the way Belichick rolls. Asked about Brady's milestone, one reached only by Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Dan Marino, Belichick immediately paired it with the NFL record Stephen Gostkowski set Sunday.
The Patriots kicker hit his 423rd successive point after touchdown to make it 37-10 and break the record held by Matt Stover. Gostkowski would hit two more before it was over. His only missed PAT came in 2006.
"Tom and also Steve today, it takes a lot of games, a lot of snaps to do that," Belichick said. "Both of them, durability, longevity, consistent production. I'm fortunate as a coach to have both of them on this team."
So much time. So many touchdowns. So much brilliance. No. 1 was a 21-yard pass to Terry Glenn on Oct. 14, 2001. No. 100 was a 1-yard pass to Daniel Graham on Sept. 18, 2005. No. 200 was a 36-yard pass to Chris Baker on Sept. 27, 2009. No. 300 was a 7-yard pass to Gronk on Jan. 1, 2012. Brady has thrown 61 against the Bills. He has thrown TDs to 56 players, the most (57) to Gronk, who hauled in four passes for 101 yards but no TDs on Sunday. Not surprisingly, 197 of his 401 TDs have been inside 10 yards.
So many touchdowns. So much brilliance. What about that 65-yarder to Randy Moss at Giants Stadium to complete the perfect regular season in 2007? Or the 99-yarder against Miami to Wes Welker in 2011, the longest pass of Brady's career? Or that leaping corner grab by David Patten against the Rams in the Super Bowl in 2002? OK, that one doesn't count among his 401. Brady has 53 more in the playoffs.
They all count in the memory bank.
"It was a great day of football out there," Brady said.
They were 131/2 -point favorites on this day. The Vegas line should have been, "Whatever Belichick wants."
"It was one of our big themes this week: Start fast; play all 60 minutes," Belichick said.
"We played pretty well for the first 50 minutes [at Buffalo], and then the last 10 minutes, it wasn't our best football."
Belichick wanted that cleaned up. So the mauling would be start to finish. Except for Jimmy Garoppolo taking a knee on the last series, the Patriots and Brady scored on every series.
They scored 28 on the Steelers. They put 40 on the Bills. Granted the Jaguars are not a good team, but the 119 points through three games are the most in team history. The offense is humming along at 39.7 points a game. No team in the 21st century, of course, has been better at finishing a season, yet it has been a while since the Patriots have looked this good this early. On Sunday, they set the NFL record for most first downs (88) through three games.
A properly inflated football, a piece of history retrieved, the Patriots have earned some time off during their bye week.