Before the Patriots’ gleeful 51-23 evisceration of the Bears yesterday was even complete, I began pondering where Tom Brady’s near-flawless performance ranks among the best regular season showings of his 201-game career.
After a jostling of the memory banks and some poking around in the archives, I’d say it’s among the top 10 in terms of both vicious, unyielding efficiency and downright this-is-how-you-play-QB-son dominance.
I may have overlooked one gem or a half-dozen — I mean, he has steadily stellar games that don’t crack his top 30 that would go down as career Sundays for most of his peers the last 14 seasons. It strikes you, scanning his career game-logs, how often the Patriots have put up 40 points in his tenure. (I counted 26, with another 60 games of 30 or more, which is nuts.)
He has played quarterback so brilliantly for so long — only his Papa John’s-pushing rival in Denver can match his prolonged greatness — that it’s easy to take the casual excellence for granted.
Yesterday was not one of those times. Brady played so breathtakingly well, with as many touchdown passes, five, as incompletions, that even those entitled nitwits among us who were racing to declare the end of an era a month ago had to appreciate the performance in the moment.
He may have played better at points in his career. Then again, maybe he has not.
This much I am sure of: He’s not getting traded to the Texans before the deadline tomorrow.
What’s even more encouraging than these vintage Brady games when Brady himself is supposed to be vintage is that his supporting cast’s collective performance is rising with him.
I’d consider taking the skill-position players Jay Cutler gets to work with over Brady’s crew — though Rob Gronkowski’s return to beast-among-boys form makes that a more difficult decision than it would have been at, say, 12:59 p.m. yesterday. It’s intriguing to consider what Brady might accomplish with talent like Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, and Marcellus Bennett in his huddle.
But I wouldn’t make the swap. Gronk is too fun to watch when he’s playing so destructively. I imagine you’re with me on this, too — don’t you cringe or hold your breath every time he takes a hit? Just let him get through this season without another scar. Let him be himself for the season’s final games. That’s all we ask, for now.
Gronk obviously makes Sunday afternoons easier on the Patriots’ other receivers. When he’s dealing with a triple team — and catching the ball in middle of that hapless, overmatched triple team, like the high school hero playing with the neighborhood kids — it frees up the other receivers to do some damage.
Brandon LaFell and Tim Wright in particular have benefited from playing with Gronk. But you know what we’ve learned over the last few weeks? They’re both quality receivers in their own right, and this passing game isn’t just Gronk and Julian Edelman.
The coolest stat among many revelatory numbers yesterday was this one, passed along by the Globe’s Mike Whitmer: Brady was 26 of 26 on throws to Gronk, LaFell and Wright.
LaFell in particular has been a find — those long arms make it seem like he could pluck the moon out of the sky if Brady told him to. The 27-year-old ex-Panther had 11 catches for 124 yards Sunday. He’s on pace for 60 catches for 924 yards — and he’s trending upward considering he didn’t have a catch in the first two weeks of the season.
LaFell would fit in seamlessly with the Deion Branch/David Givens/David Patten receiving corps of a decade ago, and that should be considered high praise.
As for Wright, allow me to reiterate a point that I am more confident in with each passing week. There is going to come a time when we look at the Logan Mankins deal as a win for the Patriots, and without much debate. Wright’s numbers aren’t huge (seven catches yesterday, 17 for the season), but his ability is apparent, and a receiver/tight end of his skill set was a necessity.
I like this group Brady has to work with this year. But that doesn’t matter a damn. What matters is that he likes it, and he seems to like it more with each passing week.
Brady may not have the weaponry to match what Manning will bring with him to Foxborough Sunday. But after what we saw against the Bears, from the man throwing the passes and those pulling them in, Brady has enough to end the afternoon with another satisfying victory.