Tomase: Patriots once again rise above pettiness to prove they're united where it matters -- on field

John Tomase
September 09, 2018 - 4:27 pm
Rob Gronkowski

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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From the moment tears began streaming down Malcolm Butler's cheeks last February until the Texans won the coin toss on Sunday, the Patriots found themselves living in an alternate reality marked by rancor, infighting, and uncertainty.

The cracks in the foundation of their most important partnerships threatened to bring the whole thing down like the House of Usher. We spent months wondering if Tom Brady would retire, Rob Gronkowski would be traded, Bill Belichick would walk away. Hours before Sunday's opener, even, a report circulated that Gronkowski threatened to retire a few months back rather than be dealt. The offseason of misery refused to release its talons.

But then the opening whistle blew, the action finally returned to the field, and order was restored.

For 60 minutes on Sunday against a talented Texans team widely considered a Super Bowl contender, the Patriots proved that palace intrigue ceases to exist on a 100-yard patch of turf deep within the walls of said palace.

If Belichick still harbors resentment over being forced to trade quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo -- who took his first loss as a starter in Minnesota on Sunday -- it wasn't reflected in a clever game plan that took the team's biggest perceived weakness -- a lack of manpower at receiver -- and somehow turned it into a strength as Brady completed passes to eight different men.

If Brady frets about feeling appreciated and doubting if this is still worth it, those concerns dissipated as soon as he barked his first signal. He may have lacked midseason form, but he remained the best player on the field while making targets like fullback James Develin, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, and running back Rex Burkhead viable weapons. He also had no problem getting his nose dirty, converting one first down on a QB sneak and standing in to complete passes in the face of an increasingly aggressive Texans pass rush as the game wore on.

After months of worrying if Gronk cared about anything other than vroom-vrooming, the tight end looked like his old dominating self. He scored the first touchdown of the season by overwhelming a fruitless double team at the pylon, and he caught a pair of rumbling passes on the seam -- with one ending in an uncharacteristic fumble -- that put him in monster truck mode. He finished the game defending the goal line on Houston's final Hail Mary.

Whatever issues plagued the central characters this spring -- and only the most fanboyish wall defenders deny they exist -- they're a Monday-through-Saturday concern. On Sundays, none of it matters.

That's called compartmentalizing, and the Patriots do it better than anyone. In his heart of hearts, Belichick probably still wishes Garoppolo remained in the organization. Brady's questions about feeling appreciated didn't just magically disappear. There's now enough smoke around efforts to trade Gronk that it's hard to believe any lingering hard feelings aren't still smoldering at least a little.

Those are stories for the Inside Track, though, not the sports pages. It's football season, which means for three hours each week, the Patriots are a house united.

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