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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Time is now to make tough call on Brady

FOXBOROUGH -- Now that it's over, after he successfully plucked Tampa Bay's defense bare like the feathers off a holiday bird, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can admit it.

''I've certainly had better weeks," Brady said once his team's 28-0 dismantling of the Bucs yesterday was in the books. ''It was a long week. I wasn't on the field as many days as I'd like to be."

There was never any doubt that Brady would play yesterday. He was hobbled all week, suffering from an injured shin, if you believe the Patriots' weekly report (if you do, you might be interested in purchasing my photos of Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa tracking the Loch Ness monster in the Bermuda Triangle).

His actual ailment -- and the severity of it -- will remain a mystery. What remains clear is he does not like to sit out, under any circumstances. His string of 85 straight starts remains intact, and likely will increase.

''I just love playing, and the only way I'm not going to play is if the doctor tells me I can't play," Brady said. ''And, for me, injuring my leg, it's different than me injuring my arm or something like that. I mean, I don't move very well, nor do I move very well when I'm completely healthy, so I guess I'm used to that."

Brady loathes separating himself from the masses in his locker room, which means if Richard Seymour and Kevin Faulk and Corey Dillon can drag one leg around on the field for the good of the team, as they have at various points this season, there's no reason the quarterback can't do the same.

''I don't want to seem like I am anything different than what they [are], because I'm certainly not," he said.

But that's where he is mistaken. Brady is different. He is the one player the Patriots cannot afford to lose, and his own guys understand that implicitly. He sets the tempo of this team, which was in full evidence yesterday, and without him New England isn't going anywhere.

On the first drive of the day, Brady marched his team 76 yards with the precision of a marksman stalking his prey. Included in that drive was a third down bullet to David Givens along the sideline for 32 yards.

''That 30-yard pitch route, that's hard to do," lauded Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber. ''[Brady] is a living legend, and we saw that out of him today.

''The few times we got to him was on some blitzes and he still made plays on those."

It never has been his limbs that have set him apart. Brady's brains, his instincts, and yes, his guts, is what has earned him superstar status. He has an uncanny knack for making the right decisions and doing whatever is necessary to complete the play, whether it's blocking (he's still ticked over drawing a flag for that last weekend), or checking off at the last second and busting up the defense.

''It's lots of intangibles," Barber said. ''He's very smart. He understands the game. We went to a lot of zone defenses, but there wasn't a lot [we did] that fooled him."

There's the understatement of the afternoon. Brady completed 20 of 31 passes for 258 yards and 3 touchdowns for a sparkling quarterback rating of 122.8. He located nine receivers, including offensive lineman Tom Ashworth (in the end zone).

Even when Tampa Bay's vaunted pass rushers got to him, as former teammate Greg Spires and linebacker Shelton Quarles did in the second quarter, unceremoniously flattening him on the turf, Brady appeared unflappable.

''He was lying on the ground saying, 'Hey man, good hit,' " Spires said. ''Then he got up and called another play. He's one tough guy. Give him a little leeway, and you're dead."

Brady's willingness to play -- or more accurately his insistence on it -- is admirable. And, against Tampa Bay, it was also necessary. The Patriots, despite their cushy position in the standings, had not yet wrapped up the division title. That was accomplished yesterday, along with another milestone. With a 27-yard completion to Tim Dwight in the second quarter, Brady set a career high for passing yardage in a season. He has 3,888 yards this season.

The next stop on the Patriots' docket is a game against the depleted Jets Dec. 26. If Brady wants to handle the opening snap, and drive the ball into the end zone, that sounds fine.

But sometime soon after that, it's time for the quarterback to take a seat. As much as it flies in the face of what he believes and what his coach espouses, Brady isn't healthy, and there is a golden opportunity before him to get better without hurting the team.

Here's why, more than anything, you've got to strap No. 12 to the bench: If you put Tom Brady on the football field, he will take what the defense gives him.

In the case of yesterday's blowout victory, here's what the Buccaneers gave him on fourth and 2 from the Tampa Bay 32-yard line with 3:05 left in the game and New England sitting on a 28-0 lead: a quarterback sneak.

Conventional wisdom would suggest Brady, who in his words was only able to participate in ''limited practice" all week, pass on such a tempting offer. The clock was ticking down, the victory was secured, and there was absolutely no reason to tuck his head and attempt grind out the yardage.

But Brady can't help it. He's a competitor. That's what competitors do. They make plays -- even when it makes more sense not to make them.

''They were giving it to me," Brady said, his smile broadening. ''I've got to take it.

''I'll probably look at the film tomorrow and be angry about it."

Naturally Brady converted the first down. Running back Corey Dillon got a handoff on the next play, and when the two-minute warning came around, coach Bill Belichick wisely pulled his franchise player and entrusted the final minutes to veteran Doug Flutie.

Do it again next week, Bill -- only sooner. Save Brady from himself. Sure he'll be ticked off watching his teammates have all the fun. He'll get ornery and angry and antsy. But guess what?

He just might get healthy, too.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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