Brady not at his best as Pats endure tough stretch
The 24-year-old quarterback beamed from the podium as the crowd cheered and confetti fluttered. He clutched the top of his head with both hands and shook it from side to side, as if in disbelief.
Tom Brady had just won his first Super Bowl.
Eight seasons later, he lay face down on a different field. His hands were in nearly the same position, atop his helmet, after his last-chance pass was intercepted on Sunday.
Tom Brady had just lost for the third time in four games.
How did the cover-boy quarterback with the dimpled chin and the rifle arm go from the peak to the pits? He takes some of the blame for the New England Patriots problems.
``I hate to talk about myself because it's not about what I do. It's about what we need to do,'' he said, before adding, ``Obviously, I need to play better.''
Brady has thrown balls over receivers' heads and at their feet. His knack for carrying the team to fourth-quarter comebacks is missing. His frustration is evident on his face.
But there are plenty of reasons why the Patriots are 7-5 and in a tight battle for a playoff berth.
The play-calling has been questionable. There is no reliable wide receiver behind Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Tight ends have caught just 22 passes in the last 10 games. The running game is inconsistent.
With former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels leaving after last season to coach the Denver Broncos, Brady and quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, who calls plays, haven't clicked.
The Patriots lost 22-21 to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday on a field goal with 1:02 left despite Brady's 352 yards passing. In the second quarter, coach Bill Belichick chose to run on fourth down from the Miami 6-yard line and fell short.
``I think the outcome of the game is probably different if they just kick the field goal,'' said New Orleans cornerback Mike McKenzie, who intercepted Brady in a 38-17 Saints win in the Patriots' previous game. ``So why is it Tom Brady? Why isn't it Belichick who's not doing a good job?''
And Brady? ``You can't have a great season every year,'' McKenzie said.
Still, Brady is second in the league in yards passing, throwing for more than 300 yards in six of his last seven games, tied for sixth in touchdown passes and eighth in completion percentage.
He threw two interceptions against Miami in the fourth quarter, but Moss didn't challenge cornerback Vontae Davis on the first one in the end zone and linebacker Cameron Wake eluded right tackle Nick Kaczur and hit Brady as he unloaded the pass right to linebacker Channing Crowder with 35 seconds left.
``When you're 7-5, you don't have a lot of good feelings about much, especially with some of the teams that I've been on and the kind of expectations that we have,'' Brady said. ``I have to play my best football down the stretch.''
If he doesn't, it won't be for lack of effort. Even after his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, gave birth to their son on Tuesday, Brady was eager to return to his teammates.
``As a captain and a leader of this team, the last thing they need from me is to be really not focused on the job at hand,'' he said.
Brady entered this season with 28 wins after the Patriots trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. The only time they did that this season was in the opener, a 25-24 win over the Bills in which he threw two scoring passes in the last 2:06.
``If you just let Brady drop back at the top of his drop and deliver the ball on perfect timing, it's going to be tough,'' Buffalo safety George Wilson said. ``He's getting a lot more contact in the pocket. He's maybe not as aggressive to step into those throws.
``From the games I have seen on TV, throws that have become typical of him, he's missing. He's not hitting them every time like you've grown to expect him.''
Brady threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns as New England led Indianapolis 31-14 in the fourth quarter on Nov. 15. But the Colts won 35-34 after Belichick's ill-fated try for a first down on fourth-and-2 with 2:08 left.
``When we played them he looked very efficient, very effective,'' Colts linebacker Gary Brackett said. ``He looked the same as he did before he hurt his knee.''
Brady's left knee seems fine after offseason surgery on the injury that ended his 2008 season in the opener. Lately, he's had finger and rib injuries, but he still completed two passes for 58 yards and one for 81 on Sunday.
It took a serious injury to quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the second game of 2001 for Brady to launch his spectacular career.
``When he first got here, no one could really tell what he was going to be,'' said running back Kevin Faulk, who joined the team in 1999, ``but just knowing that he was a hardworking person that no matter what he always tried to be the best guy at his position at what he does and I think that's why he is who he is right now.''
The Patriots upset the St. Louis Rams 20-17 in that season's Super Bowl and Brady was the game's MVP.
He was back in the title game two years later and was MVP again after a 32-29 win over Carolina.
``When you look through time and all your great quarterbacks, your Hall of Fame quarterbacks, there is a pretty good supporting cast along with them,'' said Panthers coach John Fox, who will face the Patriots again on Sunday. ``He's as good as there is in the business and has been for some time.''
The Patriots reached the Super Bowl again the following season. Brady threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-21 win over Philadelphia.
Lito Sheppard, now with the New York Jets, started at cornerback for the Eagles in that game.
``I don't necessarily see anything different other than the talent around him,'' he said. ``They have basically two guys in the passing game that get the ball, where before it was four or five guys and they didn't have that go-to guy. I think that has kind of made them as a team more predictable.
``When we (the Eagles) played them, they didn't have that standout-type guy, so everybody was an option.''
The problems aren't all Brady's fault. Just as those fourth-quarter comebacks weren't all his doing.
``The defense helped him out a lot in the past,'' Sheppard said. ``They made key drives when they needed to and I think they still do that this year, but I think the lack of big plays on the defense has been the biggest difference in that team right now.''
So don't write off Brady yet. The Patriots certainly aren't, not with only rookie free agent Brian Hoyer backing him up and no sense of urgency to groom a successor.
Brady may never match his NFL record of 50 touchdown passes in 2007 when he was the league's MVP and the Patriots were 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.
But give him a third wide receiver, better plays to run, and another year removed from knee surgery to eliminate any caution that may remain and then see what happens.
``I think he has hit his peak, but that doesn't mean there's a slope on the other side of that,'' Sheppard said. ``I think he's leveling out, but I don't think he's on the downside. You look at a guy like that, I think he could play a good seven more years and still be effective.''
AP Sports Writers Michael Marot in Indianapolis, Brett Martel in New Orleans, Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York, John Wawrow in Buffalo and Steve Wine in Miami contributed to this report.