FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Jacoby Brissett ran 27 yards for his first NFL touchdown, zigging when one poor Houston Texan zagged, and man, that had to be some feeling, right?
Imagine the adrenaline rush for a 23-year-old rookie playing Tom Brady's position and scoring in the first quarter, on national TV, with a dash out of a third-stringer's wildest dreams. It was a perfectly appropriate time for a young quarterback to celebrate himself, and it sure looked like Brissett was doing just that when he tucked the touchdown ball in his arm and ran toward the New England Patriots' bench.
But what did Brissett do when he arrived at the sideline? He handed the ball to his head coach, Bill Belichick, and gave him a hearty pat on the back before shaking the coach's hand. It was a small-picture window into a couple of big-picture truths about the Patriots:
The players know a different man behind closed doors than the one who plays dead in his daily media conferences.
Belichick could find a way to win on any given Thursday if he needed to start Rob Gronkowski at quarterback.
This is no knock on Brissett, a third-round pick out of Florida and North Carolina State who already had earned the trust of Bill Parcells (who has acted as the quarterback's father confessor) and Belichick, not an easy daily double to pull off, before this 27-0 shredding of the Houston Texans. Brissett showed remarkable poise under the circumstances, managing the game without taking too many unnecessary risks.
With Jimmy Garoppolo down and out, Brissett knew his backup was a wide receiver, Julian Edelman, a truth demanding some caution on his part. And yet when he saw an opening on that touchdown run, Brissett wasn't afraid to pounce.
"I was just running until I got stopped," he said. "So it worked out how we planned it was going to work out. Just had to make one guy miss at the end zone."
After watching the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Brissett race around the right edge and toward pay dirt, who would've guessed that his 40-yard dash time at the draft combine (4.94) was slower than those recorded by the lead-footed brothers Manning, Peyton (4.8) and Eli (4.92), back in the day? Just another Patriot who plays faster and better than the stopwatch suggests.
"It was crazy, it was awesome," Brissett said. "It was definitely great to see all the players run up to you, and I got a headache from all the head-bumping. But it was definitely worth it."
Minutes earlier, as he dressed at his locker, Brissett turned to see an ungodly tangle of cameras and cell phones boxing him into his stall. He shook his head and smiled. Thirty-one teams in the NFL would've marched their winning quarterback into an interview room to field questions at an elevated podium, with a backdrop of team logos framing the scene. Bill Belichick's Patriots?
No way some third-string rookie is going to be lifted above the team-first, team-second values that define the organizational ethos.
At the same podium Brissett didn't qualify for, Belichick spoke of how much he'd asked of his players in this short work week, and of how convincingly they'd responded. The Patriots plowed open enough holes to get LeGarrette Blount 105 rushing yards and two touchdowns. They were brilliant on special teams, knocking the ball loose, and on defense, making the same 6-foot-7 quarterback who ended their unbeaten run last year, Brock Osweiler, look smaller than the coin used for the opening toss.
"They played the game," Belichick said of his guys, "exactly the way we asked them to play it. It wasn't perfect, I'm not saying that. But they tried to do what we wanted them to do, and as a coach you just can't ask for any more than that."
This was a purist's delight, a three-hour documentary on the hows and whys of New England's dominance since Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe 15 years ago Friday. Belichick had to drop down to No. 3 on the depth chart at the most important position in the sport by 10 country miles, and he had to do it against a protégé who knew his program and what made it tick about as well as anyone.
Bill O'Brien, son of nearby Dorchester, walked into his old Gillette Stadium office with a hopeful bounce in his step. He had a 2-0 team and, for the first time in Houston, a young quarterback he believed in as much as he believed in Christian Hackenberg at Penn State. O'Brien also had some people around the league predicting that he would be the guy who bucked the trend of former Belichick aides who flamed out after venturing outside that ever-protective Foxborough cocoon.
Nick Saban might go down as the greatest college coach of all time, but he was a product of Belichick's mostly miserable time in Cleveland and, of course, he went 15-17 in his two seasons as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Charlie Weis went 41-49 at Notre Dame and Kansas with no major bowl victories. Romeo Crennel went 28-55 for the Browns and Chiefs with no playoff appearances. Josh McDaniels went 11-17 in Denver. Jim Schwartz (Cleveland division) went 29-51 for the Lions with one playoff loss, and Eric Mangini went 33-47 with the Jets and Browns with one playoff loss -- to Belichick. Saban, Crennel, McDaniels, Schwartz, and Mangini combined to win 38 percent of their NFL games without delivering a single postseason victory.
"You can understand why all those guys got jobs coming out of Bill's system," one former New England executive said. "They're all good coaches, no question. But what owners around the league seemed to forget when they hired Bill's assistants is that they weren't bringing Bill with them."
Or Brady. O'Brien didn't have Brady on his side anymore, either, but he did show up Thursday night with a winning NFL record (20-14), a playoff appearance and a track record that showed he wasn't afraid of any challenge. He did follow Joe Paterno at Penn State. He did sign up to coach in the immediate wake of one of the most tragic college scandals of all.
In Houston he has surrounded himself with all sorts of former Belichick coaches and players. Crennel. Mike Vrabel. George Godsey. Larry Izzo. Vince Wilfork. O'Brien even hired the former Patriots scout who helped discover Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, Frantzy Jourdain. It made sense, too. If your goal is to dominate the AFC like the Patriots have over the past 15 years, why not hire as many old Patriots as possible?
None of it mattered Thursday night. O'Brien and his team were completely outclassed by Belichick and his.
"Their program has been in place for a long time," O'Brien said. "They have what I think is the best head coach in the history of the league and they do a great job."
It's funny how this has worked out, too. Belichick made his name in this league as a defensive coordinator, one of the best around, and over time he has developed into a formidable offensive mind, with an assist from McDaniels. He has practically the Abner Doubleday of the slot receiver position. He has turned Gronk into a monster. He has preserved an aging Brady with a quick, short passing game. He has proved he can go 11-5 with Matt Cassel and 3-0 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Brissett.
Belichick might as well start Edelman under center against Buffalo to stick it to commissioner Roger Goodell, who never fathomed the Patriots would bleed all remaining air out of Brady's Deflategate suspension by going 4-0 in his absence. Chances are, assuming Garoppolo's shoulder doesn't heal, the Patriots will stick with Brissett, who would've ended up with a touchdown pass had Edelman not dropped one in the back of the end zone.
Given that Brissett made history as the first African-American quarterback to start for the Patriots, Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl, watched on TV with great interest. Now an executive with Washington, Williams had given Brissett a third-round grade before the draft. His marks were a bit higher after the quarterback's first start.
"He didn't set the world on fire with  passing yards," Williams said by phone, "but he was efficient, he showed poise, he showed athleticism, and he operated exactly the way his coaches wanted him to operate. They didn't want him to be an All-Pro tonight. I liked how all his teammates ran to him in the end zone; that tells me they like him. And I liked it when Bill Belichick put out his hand for a handshake and Jacoby handed him the ball instead."
As it turned out, Belichick gave the ball back to his winning quarterback after the game, just as he had with other gift-giving Patriots of the past. "It's all about the players," the coach kept saying with conviction, and he didn't feel any great need to single out Brissett.
But without a healthy Gronk, Belichick leaned on a rookie to stay clear of J.J. Watt and to secure New England's 22nd consecutive home victory over a non-divisional AFC opponent. Before leaving his Gillette Stadium locker room for the night, Brissett looked up at a clock and said, "Damn, it's already midnight. Past my bedtime."
Somehow, some way, the league's best coach made it to 3-0 with a kid at quarterback. In two weeks, Tom Brady won't be returning to a broken system. Just one that keeps getting notarized against all odds.