logoby Scott Benson

Fifteen plays. That’s exactly how long the Patriots were able to protect Tom Brady this year.

It may prove to be exactly how long their season lasts.

Dirty hit, freak play, whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t matter. The result is the same, and unfailingly real. Either way, no Brady, no dice. You know it as well as I. How many times have we all whistled past the graveyard, trying not to make eye contact with this macabre nightmare? Now it confronts us, not in the dark but in the stark light of day.

No, no formal word has been issued, and as I type this, I search for a thread of hope across every corner of the Internet, just one story that says I didn’t see what I saw. Instead, I find that flamer Mike Florio doing handsprings at Pro Football Talk. I find Michael Silver, then Peter King, and if this whole thing wasn’t bad enough already, Ron Borges racing to be the first with the worst. Finally, I find a diagnosis from New York Jets locker room. They haven’t mastered the art of football in forty years, and now they’re practicing medicine?

The miserable f**ks couldn’t wait to tell everybody that it was over for the Patriots. The Jets think that because God just shut the Patriots door, He opened their window. They should drown like stinking rats over the next sixteen weeks.

The day started so beautifully. Liz and I fired up the grill and cracked our beers just as the sun splashed across our deck and the pre-game show appeared on our TV inside. We were tailgatin’! The humidity of Hannah was gone now, replaced with just a pinch of briskness, and the scent of smoking brats, in the air.  It was brilliant, and just the beginning, the first of so many promising Sundays to come.

Then, darkness. Fifteen plays.

What now? One foot in front of the other, I figure. Playoffs and championships are indeed an audacious (some will say laughable) notion without Brady, even if Chris Simms arrives tonight and immediately returns to the 2005 form that put him in the tournament with Tampa. But that doesn’t mean the Patriots don’t have to play their remaining fifteen games.

They can either play them like flustered dilettantes whose dinner reservations have been misplaced, or they can play them one at a time, like the pros the banners say they are. They can go down without a fight, all sullen faces and slumping shoulders, or they can buckle their chin strap, adjust their blinders, and hunker down for the next play.

Because now more than ever, they ought to know what’s at stake. That next play may well be their last.

For the 52 men left standing in the New England locker room tonight, that ought to make it too precious to waste.