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Missing, but hardly absent

Brady back on practice field

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / January 20, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Bruins coach Claude Julien would have likely called it a “maintenance day,’’ which has become his catchall reason when one of his players misses a practice. But Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t quite ready to use the same term to characterize his absence from Wednesday’s practice at Gillette Stadium.

“I just missed practice, that’s all. It’s not much more than that, other than just trying to find ways to get myself prepared to play,’’ said Brady, who popped up on the Patriots’ injury report Wednesday for his left shoulder, which he sprained against the Dolphins Dec. 24. “We’re facing a great team and great challenges.’’

Brady returned yesterday, joining his teammates in sweats and shells for their penultimate practice session before Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Ravens.

“It’s going to be the best team we’ve faced all year,’’ Brady said. “It’s going to be a very tough, physical hard-nosed game and we need everybody at full strength.’’

While Brady fully participated yesterday, the Patriots had 14 players who were limited: Deion Branch (knee), Wes Welker (knee), Aaron Hernandez (concussion), Marcus Cannon (ankle), Nate Solder (concussion), Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot), Logan Mankins (knee), Patrick Chung (knee), James Ihedigbo (shoulder), Rob Ninkovich (hip), Brandon Spikes (knee), Tracy White (abdomen), Dane Fletcher (thumb), and Kyle Love (ankle).

Brady also missed a practice during the bye week before the Broncos’ divisional-round game.

“It’s not the first practice I’ve missed over the years,’’ said Brady. “You come off a game Saturday and Sunday and you just do what you can to be prepared. If Coach [Bill Belichick] goes, ‘It’s best for you to do other things to get yourself ready,’ then that’s what you do. You still use all that time wisely. You just don’t lounge around and take a nap. You just put in extra work and make sure that you’re getting prepared.’’

Memory tucked away

Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the Tuck Rule game, the Patriots’ 16-13 overtime victory against the Oakland Raiders at Foxboro Stadium, which is now a parking lot at Patriot Place.

The win was a watershed moment in the franchise’s history, as it catapulted the Patriots to the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh and then Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.

“It was a great game, it was a great night, and, of course, a lot of fond memories,’’ Belichick said. “But [we’re] really just trying to get on to Baltimore.’’

Tedy Bruschi, who was announced yesterday to be the third of four honorary captains for Sunday’s game, said, “That game was the beginning of a run that still hasn’t ended.’’

The play came in the fourth quarter with the Patriots trailing, 13-10, and driving toward field goal range. The Raiders’ Charles Woodson hit Brady as he was trying to get off a pass, and the ball came loose and was recovered by the Raiders. But the play was called for review by the officials.

As Bruschi waited on the field for referee Walt Coleman, he recalled saying to Tim Brown of the Raiders, “Tim, I think that was a fumble.’’

Instead, Coleman ruled it an incomplete pass, invoking the Tuck Rule.

“That’s one of the games that will never be forgotten,’’ Bruschi said.

Great catches

Tight ends Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who have combined to score 28 touchdowns this season (including playoffs), could have wound up in Baltimore. They were drafted in 2010, taken with picks in the second (Gronkowski) and fourth rounds (Hernandez) immediately ahead of the Ravens.

So Brady, for one, feels fortunate that he, and not Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, have the versatile tight ends at his disposal.

“All those touchdowns [Gronkowski and Hernandez scored], they really earned through their hard work and preparation and their ability mentally to understand what we’re trying to do with them, so they can be in a position to catch those,’’ Brady said. “Both those guys have really worked hard to put themselves in a position to be a big factor in our offense.’’

That much was evident when the tight ends led the team in receiving and rushing last Saturday against Denver.

Gronkowski made 10 catches for 145 yards and a team-record three touchdowns. Hernandez, meanwhile, proved an all-purpose threat, amassing 116 yards - 55 receiving and 61 rushing, including a long gain of 43 that ranks as the third-longest rush in the team’s postseason history.

“Football is very important to them and they’ve worked hard in the offseason to prepare themselves, to prepare their bodies,’’ Brady said. “And there’s been a lot of pressure put on both those guys to play and play well, because last year we had Alge [Crumpler] here and this year it’s only been the two of them. So they really haven’t had that veteran leadership to rely on. It’s really a credit to those two guys and what they’ve been able to accomplish.’’

Fits right in

Since arriving from Kansas City, Josh McDaniels, who will replace Bill O’Brien as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator next season, has “integrated very smoothly into everything that we do, because he knows most everybody here,’’ Brady said. “He knows all the players, he knows most everybody here, he knows the offense, so his input is greatly appreciated. Whether it’s tips for me, or tips for other players, he’s seen some things and has been very helpful.’’ . . . The Patriots worked out five defensive backs: Mikail Baker, Antareis Bryan, Dominique Harris, Ryan Hill, and Ricky Price.

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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