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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Tough QB wrangles another win

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- This was one of those days when Tom Brady -- and we've said this before -- was Larry Bird. He played hard, played hurt, and played magnificently in a snow-covered 35-7 victory over the unraveling Buffalo Bills.

Here in Fitchburg-by-the Falls (where the local team is coming apart badly), on a day made for the luge run in Turin, Brady completed 29 of 38 passes for 329 yards. He threw two touchdown passes, ran for another score, completed a pass with his left hand, averaged 4.3 yards on four eventful carries, and was called for a manly chop block when he tried to take out safety Troy Vincent while Deion Branch carried on an double reverse. Brady did most of this while limping around like television's Dr. Gregory House, sans cane.

''He's a football player, man," said old man river, Troy Brown, who caught one of the touchdowns. ''It's football season. You know he's gonna go."

''For being such a squirrelly guy, he sure is tough," chuckled tight end Christian Fauria, who caught the other touchdown pass. ''He's hurt and he's out there scrambling around for the first down."

Playing Michael Jackson-style (glove on left hand only), Brady injured his left leg (calf?) in the first quarter when he plunged across the goal line on a broken play for the first score of the day. He was gimpy the rest of the day, but that didn't stop him from leading an offense that registered a franchise-record 32 first downs and logged 10 consecutive third-down conversions.

Brady limped badly when he came off the field at the end of the game. He was X-rayed at the stadium before boarding the team bus to the airport and there should be concern about his availability for Tampa Bay at home Saturday. Typically, Brady did his best to downplay the injury.

''I think I'll be fine," said the QB. ''I'm just playing. It would be hard to ever get me out of there. There are guys in that locker room that are not 100 percent playing every day."

Good answer. Brady knows how this works better than just about anyone who has ever played quarterback. It's not good to hear the pretty-boy QB complaining about little aches and pains when there are linemen and linebackers playing with bones sticking out of their flesh. Brady knows he's going to get the magazine covers and the starlets and commercials no matter how humble he tries to be. The trick is to make sure the rest of the guys know you are one of the guys. There are no shortcuts or cheap tricks in this area. He's got to do the time, play with the same pain they experience. And don't be complaining about a little leg injury, even if it might be serious.

''It was pretty much the same the whole day [after the initial injury]," said Brady. ''Sometimes you can rub some dirt on it and get back out there, but today I had to rub some snow on it and get back in there and keep going."

The Patriots were hoping to wrap up the Lightweight Division championship, also known as the AFC East, with this thrashing of the Bills, but Miami upset San Diego yesterday and the Patriots will have to wait at least another week to wrap up their ninth division title and their sixth since 1996. Back-to-back demolitions of the Jets and Bills will instill some confidence in the defense, but we all know it's been Brady keeping New England aloft in this weird, wounded fall/winter -- which makes the status of his leg kind of important at this hour.

It would be hard to assemble a representative highlight reel from Brady's snow-covered spectacle in the stadium that still honors O.J. Simpson on its wall of fame. He made an impossible throw to Branch on a third and 10 from the Buffalo 23 midway through the second quarter. Brady got rid of the ball a nanosecond before he was pancaked and he delivered an over-the-shoulder strike to Branch in stride. Corey Dillon rumbled across the goal line on the next play.

Brady was most animated when he was called for the crackback block on the double reverse in the second quarter. Diving at Vincent's legs, he appeared to use his outstretched arms to stop the Bills safety.

''I thought it was legal," said Brady. ''I thought it was a good block. We don't get a chance to make a block very often. It's good to stick your nose in there."

Coach Bill Belichick deadpanned, ''There's some technicalities in the rule. The way it was described to me, it probably was an illegal block."

Branch said they worked on the play in practice all week and he told Brady to just stay out of the way.

But that is not Brady's way. He is a football player. Remember, this is a team that has a kicker who was capable of catching Herschel Walker from behind. The coach was a football player in high school and college, and he was the son of an NFL running back. Even the Patriots owner was a football player, earning a letter as a lightweight scatback at Columbia.

These Patriots are December warriors. They are now 17-5 in the 12th month under Belichick. They also have won 24 of their last 26 games played at temperatures below 35 degrees. One could make a case that they are peaking at the right time, just before the playoffs.

The big deal yesterday was the third-down conversion percentage (11 of 16, 69 percent). Brady was intercepted twice, but one was a ball that banged off the arm of Mike Cloud. The other one was a duck into the end zone before halftime that he should have swallowed.

''It was fun today," Brady said. ''We've got to build on it. Certain things have been better the last few weeks. We're running the ball better. We're getting more off play-action. We're certainly doing things better."

They are getting better, and recent competition notwithstanding, there is new reason to have hope for the Patriots in January. As long as Larry -- er, Tom -- is healthy, that is.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His email address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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