By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- To say it has been a trying year for Tom Brady would be to make a massive, massive understatement.
Though the superstar quarterback may live the life of Riley, he's dealt with more than his fair share of adversity this year, on the field but more so off the field. A rainy January night in Foxboro earned the Patriots a trip to the Super Bowl, but with it came the report of deflated footballs. That report, of course, kicked off a firestorm of controversy, one that's taken Brady to federal court and back, and that fight remains ongoing, currently in the hands of an appeals court.
The "DeflateGate" saga served as the backdrop to the 2015 season, one in which Brady has turned in arguably the best wire-to-wire performance of his entire Hall of Fame career.
While the latter point may be fairly debated, consider this: Brady heads into Week 17 as the NFL's leader in passing yards and touchdowns.
The only time Brady's ever led the league in both categories came in 2007, at the age of 30, and yet he has a chance to do it again at age 38.
That alone would be remarkable, but when factoring in the all-out efforts of Roger Goodell and the NFL front office to bring him down, and when factoring in that he hasn't exactly had Randy Moss and Wes Welker lining up for 16 games, it's an especially impressive feat.
Consider that Julian Edelman has played in just nine games, that Dion Lewis burst onto the scene as a play-making back but tore his ACL in Week 9, and that Brandon LaFell missed the first six weeks of the season. Consider that entering this season, James White had five career catches for 23 yards, and that Keshawn Martin was coming off a season with six receptions for 78 yards, and yet Brady has relied on both as key contributors in the late part of this season.
He's also played behind an offensive line that lost one starting left tackle in early November and lost the backup left tackle this past Sunday. The interior line has consisted of three rookies -- David Andrews, Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason -- and two second-year players in Bryan Stork and Josh Kline. The tackle spots were filled on Sunday LaAdrian Waddle, who was recently released by the Detroit Lions, and Cameron Fleming, who was elevated from the Patriots' practice squad earlier this year and has primarily served as the sixth lineman on running plays.
And speaking of running plays, Brady hasn't had the benefit of getting any help from a running game, as the Patriots rank 28th in rush yards per attempt and 29th in rush yards per game. Such a deficient running game does lead to more passing opportunities, but it also means defenses know that passes are coming.
Yes, Rob Gronkowski has been there for all but five quarters of the season, and Edelman is a bona fide star when healthy, but for Brady to sit atop the league in yards and touchdowns at this point of the season is a unique achievement in a historically excellent career.
Of course, he's yet to complete that task, but he's in pretty good position, assuming he plays all or most of the Patriots' game in Miami on Sunday.
At 4,636 yards on the season, Brady will enter Week 17 with a 72-yard lead over Philip Rivers, an 89-yard lead over Drew Brees, and a 94-yard lead over Carson Palmer. Those are essentially the only candidates to pass Brady, as Matt Ryan sits at fifth, 379 yards behind Brady.
On the touchdown front, Brady's thrown 36, just one more than Blake Bortles, two more than Palmer, and three more than both Eli Manning and Cam Newton.
Brady will be taking on the Dolphins, against whom he threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns in Week 7, which was a short week. The early forecast for Sunday in Miami calls for 76 degrees temperatures, clouds, and a chance of some rain. (As a side note, Brady needs 364 yards to hit the 5,000-yard mark for just the second time in his career, and he needs just 170 yards to better his 4,806 passing yards from 2007.)
Regardless of what that other sextet of QBs does on Sunday, Brady will be able to control his own destiny, statistically speaking. Yet in the interest of keeping an eye out ...
Bortles will travel to Houston to face the Texans, against whom he threw three TDs earlier in the year. Palmer gets the Seahawks, who allowed the QB to throw for 363 yards and three touchdowns in Seattle in mid-November. Rivers has a tough draw in Denver, as the Broncos held him to just 202 yards and no touchdowns in their earlier meeting this year. Eli and the Giants will take on the Eagles in the Apathy Bowl, so that one is hard to predict. But Manning threw for just 189 yards and one touchdown against the Eagles in October. Brees is always a candidate to turn in a random 500-yard, 5-TD day, and he'll take on the Falcons, against whom he threw for 312 yards and one touchdown in mid-October. And Newton will get the Buccaneers, who held him to just 124 yards but did allow two touchdowns through the air in their earlier meeting this season.
But again, with a semi-comfortable cushion in the yardage race, and with a head start in touchdowns, Brady can likely secure both stat titles with a solid performance against a team that may or may not be interested in competing in the final game of the season.
If Brady can finish the year as the leading passer, he'll join Fran Tarkenton (1978) as the only 38-year-old to ever lead the league in yards. And Brady can become the oldest player to ever lead the league in touchdown passes. Peyton Manning led the league in both categories as a 37-year-old in 2013, so the accomplishment would be one more mark in the historic Manning-Brady debate, one that's grown more lopsided in Brady's favor in recent years.
All of this comes not as a note of what Brady or Bill Belichick might be thinking about heading into Week 17, because as we all know, stats are for losers and final scores are for winners. But fortunately, focusing only on winning the game is something that need only apply to the parties involved. Anyone watching from the outside can sit back and see if Brady can pull off a feat that's far less meaningful than winning a Super Bowl but nevertheless would be a rather impressive achievement for a quarterback who, according to many experts, was in sharp "decline" a little over a year ago.
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