By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) -- Fear not, New England. Your quarterback is still Tom Brady. Yes, that Tom Brady.
Even in one of the least impressive statistical seasons of his career, even in a season when the offense has had a cavalcade of issues, and even in a year where the most ardent Tom Brady supporter's loyalty has been tested and tried ... the quarterback is still capable of reminding the world that he is still the greatest to ever do it.
All it took was a visit from the second-best defense in the NFL with some serious postseason implications on the line to bring it out of him.
And make no mistake: Brady was brilliant in this game. He completed 78.8 percent of his 33 passes, his highest completion percentage since the middle of the 2017 season. It was just the seventh time in his entire career that he's posted a 78.8 percent completion rate with at least 30 passes in a game. He had at least one touchdown and zero interceptions vs. the Bills' defense for the first time since 2016, Rex Ryan's final year in Buffalo, after throwing just three touchdowns and five picks in his last five games vs. Buffalo. He smartly checked into running plays when needed. He set his protections and lined everyone up as needed. He made hand signals at the line. He sold play-action fakes to manipulate open space. He was not the lethal downfield passing force he's been throughout his career, but with the personnel the Patriots are working with, Brady was a nearly perfect quarterback.
Stats aside, Brady fired himself some bullets that cannot be denied.
This first third-down conversion to Julian Edelman was a dart:
He had the composure to turn a blown-up play into a third-and-2 conversion:
He was also nails in the fourth quarter. After the Bills took a 17-13 lead with a little over 22 minutes left in the game, do you know what Brady did? I will tell you what Brady did. He went 8-for-8 for 93 yards, and he threw for a critical two-point conversion to give New England a seven-point lead.
Generally speaking, throwing zero incompletions -- while converting a third-and-1 with a QB sneak for good measure -- is considered to be very good. Even Bill Belichick could not deny it.
"Yeah, I mean, I think we've all seen Tom play a lot of his best football in the most critical games of the year, in the most critical situations in those games," Belichick said after the 24-17 win, which clinched the 11th straight AFC East crown for New England. "Nobody prepares harder than Tom does, and he was ready to go, got a lot of help from the running game, the offensive line, the receivers. But, as you said, he was on the money, he was sharp. Again, that's what we need from everybody this time of year. We've got to play like this every week or our season is going to end quickly. We all know that, and nobody knows it better than he does. He prepares and works as hard or harder than anybody to make sure that he's at his best, and he certainly was today. Good day today."
Now, considering it came against the No. 3 defense in yards and No. 2 defense in scoring, and considering it came on a day when the New England defense made some uncharacteristic and costly mistakes, and that it came with a first-round bye more or less hanging in the balance? It was an impressive enough showing to help reshape the outlook for the season.
No, they won't be favorites in the AFC; Baltimore earned that role long ago. But an offensive showing like that one is enough to inspire this six-state region to once again start conceiving some Super dreams. And it's largely thanks to the jolt provided by the 42-year-old quarterback who was clearly feeling quite good on Saturday night.
But don't take my word for it. Take what rookie first-rounder Ed Oliver said when asked for his thoughts on Brady.
Oliver replied with just four letters: "G.O.A.T."
Or ask tight end Lee Smith, playing in his ninth NFL season, five of which have been spent being handed losses by Brady.
"I was born in my dad's rookie year in the NFL , so I have been around this business essentially my whole life and know it is what supports my family. I would be lying if I didn't say I appreciate the great ones," Smith said. "I don't care if it is LeBron James or Greg Maddux from the Braves when I was little throwing the ball off the mound. People who are great at their job and do it at a high level this long in pro sports, I don't know if marvel is the right word but I sure as heck respect them. Those two guys deserved to be respected and those two guys have won a lot of football games together. I mean Julian [Edelman] is special and Tom is special and they got the win today."
One player who was not overly impressed by Edelman was safety cornerback Tre'Davious White. He was asked to assess Edelman's play.
"He made big plays, that's about it," White said.
White, who appeared to be playing with an extra level of attitude on Saturday, was later asked about Brady. His answer was a bit more expansive.
"With 12 back there, there is always a chance for those guys to win a game," White said. "You can never underestimate him. He is one of the best, if not the best, to play the game."
Veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, playing his 13th NFL season and his ninth game against Brady (all losses), couldn't help but praise the quarterback -- even while talking about his incompletions.
"He's an all-time great, if not the greatest," Alexander said in the losing locker room. "We didn't stop the run. So if you don't stop the run vs. Tom, he's able to do whatever he wants to do. Even when you do get [him] flustered, obviously he's not the most athletic guy, but within that pocket, he moves around very well. And when he gets in danger, he knows where his checkdown is. So even if he knows he's not going to be able to complete it to him, he's going to just throw it in the vicinity of a guy and not take a negative play. So he's very smart, obviously with all of the experience that he has. And he gets the job done every single time. And so at some point, we're going to have to figure out how to stop it and do it at a consistent level -- especially in the fourth quarter, where he rises to the occasion every single time."
For Brady to receive such flattery from a team that just lost a game that served as a critical measuring stick speaks to a number of things. But mostly, it shows that no matter how poorly things may be going for a particular stretch, no matter how dire a situation may appear to be, and no matter which way the majority of observers are wavering with the wind, Brady's opponents certainly know better than to shovel a pile of dirt on top of his Hall of Fame career.
Tom Brady should never -- not now, not ever -- be dismissed. Not until it's all officially over.
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