Two weeks to go, one win to clinch. And for all of the questions that have surrounded the Patriots this season, the health and performance of their quarterback now ranks chief among them.
Tom Brady and the Patriots can wrap up the AFC East championship with a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, and do not underestimate the magnitude of this game. Brady clearly is banged up. A victory would give the Pats the luxury of protecting Brady in Week 17 at Houston. Barring some stunning turn of events, New England will have no chance at a bye entering the final weekend of the regular season and the Patriots will end up as either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed.
But they have to beat Jacksonville first. Pretty simple.
In the interim, it’s time to wonder about Brady’s health and effectiveness. In the last four weeks, the New England QB has four touchdown passes and six interceptions. He has not played a single game with more TDs than picks. Even at Miami, where Brady passed for 352 yards, he threw one interception in the end zone and another to effectively end the game. And yesterday he threw fewer passes in a complete game performance (23) than he has in any contest since the first week of the 2006 season.
Back then, the Patriots had no passing game amid the Deion Branch holdout. Behind the newly created tandem of veteran Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney, New England ran the ball 41 times in a 19-17 win over Bills at Foxborough. Pre-Randy Moss and pre-Wes Welker, there was much talk early that season of how the Patriots had become a running team.
The Brady of today looks far more like the Brady of 2006 than the aerial assault weapon of 2007.
"That was great news to win the game and come in the locker room and see Tennessee kick that field goal," Brady told reporters following yesterday’s win, noting that simultaneous losses by the Dolphins (to Tennessee in overtime) and Jets (to Atlanta) gave the Patriots a two-game lead in the division with two games to play. "It is a big game for us coming up this week. Not too often this team has had to go into December to get a road win. We did today and [I] didn’t think it was our best performance out there, but we won the game and that was most important."
Indeed it was. Long gone are the days where we measure the Patriots by the quality of the victory. At times like this, just winning is enough.
Clearly, Brady isn’t right. The Pats’ offensive issues aside, Brady is showing up every week on the injury report looking like Cavity Sam, the patient in the board game "Operation." Tom’s finger. Brady’s shoulder. Quarterback’s ribs. Following a 22-21 loss at Miami on Dec. 6, Brady looked so detached during his postgame press conference that you couldn’t help but wonder if he had been fed a steady diet of painkillers.
Yesterday, against a Buffalo team that has allowed more rushing yards than any team in the league, the Pats ran the ball 34 times. Brady was not sacked. Whether a result of Buffalo’s ineptitude against the run or Brady’s delicate physical state, the game plan in Week 15 served two purposes. The Pats got to exploit the Bills and protect Brady at the same time, a convergence of wants that lined up perfectly.
This week, the Pats are going to need Brady at his best against Jacksonville team cubed, diced and minced by Peyton Manning and the Colts last week. Though Jacksonville has one of the better run defenses in the NFL, the Jags are utterly inept against the pass. Jacksonville has a league-low 14 sacks, a number placed put in astonishing clarity when one considers that the Patriots (no hunters of the QB they) had six sacks yesterday against the vulnera-Bills.
Assuming the health of Brady and the interest of Randy Moss, the game plan should be obvious this week: whip it.
As for the prospect of protecting Brady in Week 17, there is precedent for that sort of thing. In 2006, with his team in a similar position – that is to say, angled for the No. 3 or No. 4 seed at best – Belichick effectively pulled Brady for the fourth quarter of a game at Tennessee with the outcome in doubt. A year earlier, with the Pats playoff standing similarly cemented, Brady played only the earliest stages of a game against Miami at Foxborough, where Matt Cassel earned the bulk of the snaps in an eventual 28-26 defeat to the Dolphins.
As this season has progressed, certain things have become self evident. The Pats aren’t nearly as good as many predicted they would be –- and on both sides of the ball. Until recently, the offense has been one-dimensional and predictable. The defense is not nearly as good as the numbers suggest. Seven of the Patriots’ nine victories have come against teams with poor passing offenses, and the team has shown an alarming absence of poise, particularly on the road.
If and when the Patriots do qualify for the playoffs, the simple truth is that most of us are not expecting much. We have seen enough to know better. And yet, at the same time, we also know that anything is possible come playoff time, when the coach and the quarterback become even more important, when the Patriots have a tandem of Belichick and Brady that will go down forever as one of the more accomplished duos in the game.
But isn’t that hope almost entirely contingent upon Tom Brady being a better far better and healthier quarterback than he has been for much of the last month?
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