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Brady should be a quarterback idle

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 30, 2011 02:10 PM

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Take a seat, Tom.

You've shouldered the load for the Patriots all season long with less margin for error than a Gallup poll. Now, it's time to rest your banged up left (non-throwing) shoulder, one that was hurting you badly enough that it required X-rays and remains bothersome enough that it caused you to miss practice time on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Leave the gambling in Foxborough to your owner, Robert Kraft, and his buddy, Steve Wynn. Absorbing a couple more blows to lock up home field in the AFC playoffs isn't worth it, not at age 34.

Understudy Brian Hoyer can handle the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Playing is a risk neither you nor the Patriots can afford to take if you want to get back to winning playoff games and lifting Lombardi trophies.

The reality is that there is no such thing as a "minor injury" when the injured party is Brady. Any malady that the franchise quarterback is dealing with is significant because so much of the team's blueprint for success is based on Brady playing like the Hall of Fame quarterback-in-waiting that he is. The slightest possibility of a physical ailment that could affect his performance or alter his Swiss timepiece throwing mechanics is cause for pause and consternation among the Foxborough Faithful.

Every hit like the plow job Denver's Elvis Dumervil unleashed on Brady two weeks ago, every Manny Ramirez-esque awkward slide, every quarterback sneak is an exercise in risk management because if Brady goes down the Patriots' go with him. How can you look at it any other way based on the shaky performance of a bend-but-don't-break defense that is more malleable than an arts and crafts pipe cleaner and has allowed 76 completions of 20 yards or more, 16 more than the next closest team, the Miami Dolphins?

The Patriots' three losses this season have all come in games that Brady wasn't his usual transcendent self. The 34-31 loss to the Bills in September came when Brady tossed four-interceptions in a game for the first time since 2006. The 25-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers remains the only game this season in which Brady passed for fewer than 200 yards. The 24-20 loss at home to the New York Giants stands as the sole contest this season in which Brady completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw multiple interceptions.

Fortunately, it does not appear that Brady's left shoulder is grave enough that is poses a real threat to the Patriots' playoff aspirations. Unfortunately, according to Wes Welker, it appears the Patriots plan to play Brady on Sunday.

Update (4:37 p.m.): The team has listed Brady as probable for Sunday's game, which the NFL defines as a "virtual certainty the player will be available for normal duty."

As coach Bill Belichick has often repeated, the Patriots don't play for individual records, so Brady being on the cusp of a 5,000-yard season (4,897) and four touchdown passes away from joining Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 40 or more TD passes bears no relevance, unless Belichick goes Sean Payton.

Neither does securing home field throughout the AFC playoffs, the most compelling reason Brady would play. The Patriots have already secured a first-round bye and a home playoff game in the divisional round. If they avenge their September defeat to the Bills on Sunday then the road to Super Bowl XLVI goes through Fort Foxborough.

That's a nice trump card to have. However, as the Patriots learned last season, the AFC's No. 1 seed and home turf is meaningless if Brady doesn't play like Brady.

TB12 was a bit off his game against the New York Jets last year, hesitant and unsure, and the Jets rendered a 14-2 regular-season a football footnote by ushering the Patriots out of the playoffs with a shocking and painful 28-21 victory.

If this Patriots team is really different from that one -- and they've acted and played like a whole lot mentally tougher bunch than the 2010 version -- then having to potentially play the AFC title game in Pittsburgh or Baltimore is not going to be the difference between returning to the Super Bowl or not, especially since Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with a high-ankle sprain.

Both the 2001 and 2004 editions of the Patriots went into the Steel City and won the AFC title game. Even last year's team went into Heinz Field and delivered a resounding 39-26 victory over the Steelers.

Giving Brady essentially three weeks to rest his shoulder and any other maladies -- the Patriots first playoff game will be either Jan. 13 or Jan. 14 -- is more important than postseason geography.

But Brady probably plays on Sunday because despite his pretty-boy public persona in a tough-guy league he is as tough as they come. You don't play quarterback for a season with three cracked ribs and a broken finger like Brady did in 2009 without being tough. Also, pride will push him to play against the Bills after he threw four picks, including one returned for a touchdown, in the Patriots' first meeting with the Bills.

Brady has always been one to mentally keep score, whether it's the quarterbacks who were drafted ahead of him or the coaches like Ryan who have challenged him.

That's why it's up to Belichick to make the call. It's a tough one. Belichick doesn't want to take his foot off the gas, and finishing strong has been a theme of this season. He's trying to teach a young team how to win.

Yet, in the back of his head Belichick has to be thinking back to the 2009 season finale, when thanks to the NFL Network's documentary/infomercial on him we know he debated sitting Welker. He didn't, and Welker tore up his knee on the Reliant Stadium turf, ending his season and for all intents and purposes that of the Patriots, who got bludgeoned by Baltimore at home the next week.

Just because Brady can play doesn't mean he should. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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