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Danny Amendola finally makes good

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Danny Amendola.

Before Thursday night, it meant sour milk, a flat tire, a broken window.

If you were an Amendola, you were a fragile guy, someone the franchise quarterback -- gasp! -- didn't really seem to care for very much. Say that out loud and everyone in the dressing room at Gillette Stadium protests loudly, insisting it is not true, but before Thursday night, one thing remained fairly indisputable: Even if Tom Brady thought Danny Amendola was just swell, he still didn't like to throw him the ball.

Before Thursday night, Amendola had caught exactly one pass in the previous five games.

One!

When Brady is looking you off, you've got problems in these parts because the passionate and vociferous fan base trusts Tom implicitly, which means they don't trust you.

It means every time you slip on that No. 80 uniform, you are the star of your own horror movie: Amendola and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

The animosity circling Amendola was brewing long before he reached this point. The receiver's two biggest sins were he wasn't Wes Welker and he was the highest-paid receiver on the Patriots, a five-year, $28.5 million player who raked in $10 million guaranteed.

Not only that, he was wearing Troy Brown's number, one that had come to symbolize grit, toughness and resilience. How come Amendola didn't seem to exhibit any of those traits?

Amendola realized very quickly his reputation as a player who couldn't stay healthy had preceded him. It didn't help his case when he ripped his groin in the early days of the 2013 season and labored through his first year in New England. The refrain quickly became, "Catch a pass, will ya?!!" He didn't do it enough, not for the money he was making and the player he was signed to replace.

He underwent offseason surgery and approached 2014 with a renewed sense of purpose, but he got no touches. It seemed as though the quarterback had moved on. On the one hand, there must have been a reason Brady didn't target him. On the other, how can Amendola prove his worth if the ball never comes his way?

Then there were the occasions when he caught a ball, but the play was called back for an illegal pick or some other transgression by a teammate that warranted a flag and wiped out his efforts. It happened again Thursday night -- on a penalty against Brandon LaFell.

If this bothered Amendola, or frustrated him, he didn't let on. He ran his routes, handled his blocking assignments, laid low and said little.

Thursday night, he claimed, was no different than any other night in his NFL career.

"I come into each and every game and every season with a chip on my shoulder," he said.

Bill Belichick has long argued that Amendola works as hard as anyone. On Thursday night, he gave Amendola the opportunity to be the team's kick returner. Although Amendola had never done that job for the Patriots, he racked up 1,618 yards for the St. Louis Rams in that capacity in 2009 and another 1,142 yards in 2010.

"Really?" teammate Rob Gronkowski said. "I didn't know that."

Neither did a chunk of the Patriots faithful, who saw Amendola back there and spit out his name as though it were a contagious rash.

But Amendola ran the first kick out 27 yards and the next one 21 yards. Later in the game, he broke free for a 31-yard return that featured some nifty moves that provided him -- and his team -- with some life.

"I felt like running back those kicks helped me get into a rhythm," Amendola admitted. "A rhythm that I really haven't felt since the season began."

In the waning minutes of a tight game with the New York Jets, a game that wasn't supposed to be this close, Amendola still had been targeted only one time.

With the Patriots clinging to a 20-19 lead and facing a second-and-goal from the Jets' 4-yard line, tight end Tim Wright was flagged for a false start. Everyone knew what would happen next: The big tight end was getting the hook.

Amendola replaced him, but the audible groans from the crowd suggested nobody was expecting much. Why would they?

"I feel for him," Gronkowski conceded, "but I always told him, 'Keep rolling, keep grinding.' And that's what he's done. Every day, every week.

"So that's why what happened is very awesome."

What happened was on third-and-goal from the 19-yard line, Brady ended up scrambling to stay alive and back shouldered a pass behind Amendola and safety Antonio Allen. It was, Brady later said, "a great kind of ad lib."

"[Danny] ran a little return route, and then he saw me scramble, broke up the field like we talk about all the time and made a great catch," Brady said.

The scramble drill is one the team practices every Friday, but, Brady pointed out, "It's one thing to practice it, another to then apply it in the game. It just happens so quickly. You see the guy and boom -- you squirt through and he [makes] a phenomenal catch."

Boom -- just like that, Amendola is hauling in an acrobatic, behind-the-shoulder grab and slamming into the end zone, a place he hasn't frequented since 2013.

Just like that, there is a legitimate Amendola moment. Nay, let's upgrade it. A legitimate Amendola highlight.

Did it feel good? What do you think? As he skipped to the sideline, he mussed Brady's hair like they were old school chums.

"I'm trying to find a role on this team any way I can," Amendola said. "Sometimes, things don't go your way. Sometimes, they do. I'm just trying to make sure if I get the ball in my hands I do something with it."

Julian Edelman and Amendola have known each other for years, working and training in Los Angeles together during the offseason. Edelman has noted the negative energy swirling around his friend.

"But we don't talk about that," Edelman said. "We focus on what we have to do to keep going, and Danny's done that. He works as hard as anyone in here. That's never changed."

There's reason to believe the job of returning kicks will belong to Amendola again next week. As trust in him grows with his coach and his quarterback, maybe the ball will find its way into his hands more frequently.

Belichick stressed he did not plug in Amendola to run back kicks because he was unhappy with Patrick Chung. It had more to do, Belichick said, with Chung's significant workload.

"It gives Danny an opportunity to get some balls back there and also to kind of spread the load to everybody," Belichick said. "It's one less thing that Chung has to focus on because he's got a lot of other stuff on his plate in terms of defense, punt, punt return, nickel, dime, goal line. That's a lot of stuff."

Amendola confirmed he's been working on kickoff returns in practice all season. When pressed on whether he asked Belichick for the opportunity to expand his role, he smiled and said, "It just worked out.

"I'll do whatever they want."

As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, Amendola's score almost didn't stand up. The Jets marched down the field in the final minute and lined up to kick a long field goal that would have won the game. As the ball went up, a Patriots player blocked it, and, initially, no one was really sure who it was ...

Danny Amendola!

No. Of course, it wasn't Amendola, although he was the one who recovered an onside kick a few minutes earlier.

Even so, the sentiment was a good one. Suddenly, Danny Amendola meant blocked field goals, touchdown passes, puppies and rainbows. It meant a new chance at a new day, when things might not be so terrible, horrible, no good, very bad after all.

It's only one catch, only one game.

It's now up to the receiver -- and the quarterback -- to build on it from here.