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A hike in his play

Brady's overall game gets better and better

FOXBOROUGH -- When former Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked the Patriots out of the Drew Bledsoe Era and into the Tom Brady Era, it began a renaissance of Patriots football, not unlike what happened with the advent of Joe Montana in San Francisco, Troy Aikman in Dallas, and John Elway in Denver.

Arguments can be made for the coaching, and the players surrounding Brady, but the centerpiece of this dynasty-in-the making is the quarterback. The quarterback is also the catalyst for the revived Pittsburgh Steelers, who right now are the Patriots' biggest competition.

While no one can say how far young Ben Roethlisberger will take the Steelers, he seems to be bringing Pittsburgh football into a new era after veteran Tommy Maddox got hurt.

Brady, of course, was in his second season before he got his chance to start while Roethlisberger is a rookie. Roethlisberger has a 104 quarterback rating in seven starts, while Brady had an 86.3 rating through his first seven. Roethlisberger has thrown for 1,274 yards to Brady's 1,201, though Brady had thrown 10 TD passes to Roethlisberger's nine, but Brady had also thrown seven interceptions to Roethlisberger's four. Roethlisberger is 7-0 while Brady was 5-2.

Now comes the hard part: sustaining the excellence.

Brady has endured personnel changes, teams scheming against him, blitzes and stunts and all-out harassment, but he has still kept the Patriots afloat as the top team in the game, winning 23 of his last 24 games.

The magnitude of the decision to go with Brady in '01 was never more evident than Sunday night when Drew Bledsoe, the man who arguably saved Patriots football when he was drafted in 1993, showed his obvious decline, while Brady continued his rock-steady performance.

Brady might have been overshadowed in the Patriots' 29-6 victory over the Bills -- Corey Dillon had 151 rushing yards, Troy Brown made his first career interception, and the defense stopped Willis McGahee in his tracks -- but sometimes it's easy to overlook the player who steers the ship.

While his stats don't compare with those of Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees, or even Roethlisberger, Brady's game continues to evolve and improve. He has gone from more of a dink-and-dunk passer to a downfield thrower, helped greatly by Dillon giving New England a running game.

He also is spreading the ball around, and not getting locked into his primary receiver. By halftime Sunday night, Brady had completed passes to nine teammates; he would find 10 by the end of the night.

The process of looking toward the primary receiver, looking away, and then going back to him is a sign of experience and the fact that Brady is being given time in the pocket to make those decisions.

"A lot of the times, you are going back, you are staying with guys and you have enough time," he said. "And sometimes you go back to them but you don't always have that time. Sometimes you have to get rid of it quick."

Whether it's Dillon's running or Brady's efficiency or both, the Patriots had some very long drives Sunday night -- 81, 91, 75, and 70 yards -- another sign of Brady's increasing poise.

"We took advantage of the field position when we got it," Brady said. "We were backed up a bunch of times, but for the most part, moving the ball up and down, everyone feels really happy." Every successful quarterback has to have a successful offensive line. As Brady has grown, so has his protection.

"They don't get a lot of credit, but they come to work and they bust their butts in practice," said Brady. "And it really shows out there in the game.

"They are very capable players and great, when, like I say, when you hand the ball off and there are big holes for Corey to run through and Kevin [Faulk] to run through. And when you drop back and pass, it is always nice to have some time."

Brady is entering his true veteran seasons as a professional quarterback. Some reach that point and stay the same, some decline. Brady won't allow himself to stop growing just yet. Which is why, Ben Roethlisberger, the Brady Era may last a while longer.

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