THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

Late focus not great, but one needs to look at the big picture

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / December 24, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - What did you do yesterday to pass the time while waiting for the inevitable?

I counted the diverse Patriots offensive sets (how about that I formation late in the third quarter?) and the number of fans dressed like the Grinch (at least four, from this vantage point). And the number of shopping days until New England wraps up this tidy little regular season in a big, red bow, lays claim to a perfect campaign, and celebrates the milestones of its prolific quarterback, who will establish a record for touchdown passes in a season, and its rejuvenated receiver, who will establish a record for TD receptions in a season.

We think.

For weeks it has felt as though it's not a matter of if but when Tom Brady would surpass the gaudy total of his friend and rival Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, who threw 49 touchdown passes in 2004. Brady entered yesterday needing four to tie Manning and five to establish a new mark.

By halftime, Brady already had tossed three scoring strikes - two to Randy Moss and one to Jabar Gaffney. The two TD receptions for Moss brought him within one of tying Hall of Famer Jerry Rice for the NFL record, 22 in 1987.

But in the final two quarters the well-oiled Brady-to-Moss scoring machine came to a grinding halt. Brady, who was a tidy 14 for 18 for 163 yards at intermission, arguably submitted his worst half of football of the season down the stretch, including uncharacteristically forcing some balls.

The grisly details of the GQ QB's output in the third and fourth quarters: 4 for 15 for 52 yards, 2 interceptions and a fumble, and no record.

It will not surprise you to learn in the wake of those stats that Moss had a pretty quiet second half of his own. He caught two balls for 17 yards, and no record.

Obviously all that matters is who won the game, and that was never in doubt. Truthfully, it looked as though when the Patriots ripped off their initial 28-0 lead, they kind of lost interest in this one (hey, admit it, you did too).

This team is entitled to the occasional letdown. The distractions are mounting. There was, for instance, a little matter of a major impending holiday. Who knows? Maybe halfway through yesterday's game Brady realized today is Christmas Eve and he forgot to overnight his holiday packages to the West Coast. Maybe Moss was fretting over whether he was supposed to bring the figgy pudding, and exactly where he'd find some before the supermarkets closed.

It's human nature to occasionally allow your mind to wander in the direction of mistletoe and a day off and new PlayStation 3 software under the tree.

"But you try not to let it be human nature, because it's our job to play to the best of our ability for 60 minutes," said center Dan Koppen. "If we don't do that, then we're not doing our job."

Perfection is an exhausting proposition, and the wear and tear of that partially revealed itself yesterday. A number of Patriots conceded in a subdued locker room that the coaches have been working them harder and harder as the weeks have progressed. As odd as it may sound, particularly considering their undefeated status, it has been a grueling season.

"It just feels like every week kind of rolls into the next," Brady said.

Chasing players the stature of Manning and Rice is no small feat, particularly when everyone in the league is gunning for you week after week. No one is allowed to discuss the goal of landing Brady or Moss in the record books in case it's misconstrued as an individual pursuit, which is verboten, but the fact remains it would be incredibly rewarding for Brady in particular if he does displace Manning.

"We've got to get it for him," said Gaffney after the game. "If we play our game, it will happen."

"Of course we want Tom to break that record," added running back Kevin Faulk, "but he knows and we know if we focus on the team, all the other stuff takes care of itself."

He is right, of course. There's no need to force the issue. It appeared Brady may have been doing a little bit of that in this one. On a pair of sequences in the second half, he unsuccessfully launched 50-yard-plus bombs toward Moss in triple coverage.

"We talked all week about trying to get up on those safeties and trying to give Randy an opportunity to go down the middle," Brady said. "Those guys were pretty deep, and you try to lay it up there to give him an opportunity to make the play. It works out pretty well when he catches them, but when he doesn't, it doesn't look so good."

Asked if they were gunning for the records for Brady and Moss, coach Bill Belichick pointed out that with both tight ends Benjamin Watson and Kyle Brady inactive because of injuries, the Patriots featured a number of sets with four wideouts.

"Trying to run our offense," said the coach. "That's all we did."

There is only one game, Saturday night against the Giants, left to refine these historic pursuits. And so we will wait one more week for the inevitable to unfold, for Brady and Moss and the Patriots to re-write NFL history, both on a collective and individual level. The record New England did set yesterday was a league mark for most touchdowns in a season (71). They also tied their franchise record of 18 consecutive regular-season wins.

By this time next week, Brady and Moss should supplant both Manning and Rice en route to a perfect 16-0.

It's inevitable.

Isn't it?

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

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