HOUSTON (AP) — Being a backup quarterback for the New England Patriots during Tom Brady's tenure has typically been a practice-only position.
With the exception of the 2008 season when Brady missed the final 15 games after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Patriots' season opener, he started all but two of New England's regular-season games from 2001 to 2015.
Matt Cassel did his best in Brady's absence in 2008, but came up short of leading the Patriots to the playoffs that season. It was one of only two times since Brady became New England's starting quarterback that his team failed to make it to the postseason.
So when Brady decided before the season to end his legal fight with the NFL over the four-game suspension it handed down in the aftermath of its "Deflategate" investigation, it was anyone's guess how the Patriots would perform over the first month of 2016.
Thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, the answer was just fine .
The spotlight will be on Brady when the Patriots take the field in Sunday's Super Bowl matchup with Atlanta. But Brady probably owes part of the seventh Super Bowl appearance of his career to his two understudies.
New England went 3-1 during Brady's absence, earning a season-opening road win at Arizona with Garoppolo under center. The Patriots won two of the next three with Brissett starting after Garoppolo injured his shoulder during the Patriots' Week 2 win over Miami.
"It's been a journey. This season kind of showed how much of a team sport football is," Garoppolo said this week. "It's taken three different quarterbacks, 53 different guys and it's been a hell of a ride."
And one heck of a learning experience for two young quarterbacks, one of which could wind up playing a part in the franchise's future after Brady retires.
Garoppolo has been the primary backup since he was drafted in 2014, and nearly got his first shot to start when Brady's suspension was initially handed down prior to the start of the 2015 season.
But for Brissett , getting the opportunity to play as a rookie was a complete surprise. How he was able to excel despite suffering a right thumb injury in New England's 27-0 win against Houston in Week 3 showed the Patriots that he was worth the third-round draft pick they used on him.
He said being able to be part of a Super Bowl run as a rookie has been a "dream come true."
"As a competitor, you want to have that opportunity to go out there and play (and) prove yourself. I was fortunate to have that opportunity," Brissett said. "It's been a great year for us and we're just out there having fun, playing for each other."
The backups might have also given Brady the perfect amount of rest that his body needed this season at age 39.
"When I'm not there, other guys stepped in and did a great job. Jimmy and Jacoby did an incredible job, and the rest of the team," Brady said. "It has been that way all season."
Though it's a possibility that either Garoppolo or Brissett could be traded in the future, they both said they weren't thinking about anything beyond these next few days.
Instead, Garoppolo said getting a chance to prove he could start at this level is an experience that he will carry with him for the remainder of his career.
"In this league, you might never get an opportunity," he said. "To have an opportunity like that, I mean, you've got to be thankful for it and go take advantage of it. You never know if you're going to get another."
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