Patriots can still grind, but Tom Brady on pace to take a beating like he's never seen

Eric Adelson

TAMPA, Fla. – Jameis Winston was still putting on his pinstripe suit when he hurried out of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room to say hello to his idol. Tom Brady, already dressed in black and walking out of the stadium after a 19-14 win Thursday, stopped his stride. Winston told him it was an honor to meet him, and he thanked him for being, well, Tom Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback leaned over to give the younger passer a hug. Reporters closed in and Brady asked for some space. Then Brady began gesturing, as if talking about passing routes, and Winston nodded along. This was his moment with a legend, and he took all the precious time he could get.

A season that was widely expected to be another Patriots freight train to the Super Bowl has a bit of a different vibe thus far. The number 16, tossed around over the summer as the possible Pats regular-season win total, is now the number of sacks allowed on Brady through only five games. Last season, in 12 Brady starts, the Pats allowed only 15 sacks. The Bucs, after having one sack all season, collected three on Brady in one game.

The most sacks Brady took in a season was in 2001, his first year as a starter, when he went down 41 times. He’s currently on pace to hit the turf 51.2 times this fall and winter. Brady himself doesn’t seem wobbly, but the team does.

Tom Brady weathered the hits from the Bucs and led the Patriots to a 19-14 victory on Thursday night. He was sacked three times, bringing the season total to 16. (AP)

There is a waning list of options for Brady to pick from now. Julian Edelman is injured. Rob Gronkowski was a late scratch on Thursday with a thigh contusion. Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, warriors both, are still not game breakers. Brandin Cooks was a good add, but he has scored in only one game so far.

Of course Brady himself is still the ageless wonder, but behind that offensive line it’s fair to wonder if he’s really ageless. He threw a wild pass behind his target for a first-series interception, he was hit hard even after successful throws, he lost a fumble, and there were a couple of times when he stayed on the ground for a beat too long for most fans’ comfort.

“Just football,” he said with a grin when asked about that extra second on the turf. “Just football. I’ll be there next Sunday.”

That’s always assumed with Brady, as he has been amazingly durable for all but one season of his Hall of Fame career. With just about every other quarterback it seems like every week is hobbling – hello, Ben Roethlisberger – yet in New England it’s Benjamin Button Brady.

This season, though, the Pats just don’t have the kind of rhythm we’re all used to. The defense isn’t that stellar. Coming into the game, the passer rating of New England’s opponents (116.5) was almost identical to Brady’s (116.6) – a sure sign of trouble. Head coach Bill Belichick lavished praise on that side of the ball for preparing on a short week, but he also said, “the list is pretty comprehensive” of the issues the team has to work through.

To be sure, there’s no shame in that. The Pats are 3-2. They rallied after a jarring home loss to Carolina and beat a decent team in the 94 percent humidity after three rest days and a flight. Brady had 303 yards and a touchdown to go with that one interception. This is not DefCon 1.

Still, this game was not reassuring. If the Bucs had a competent kicker, or a quarterback who made the big throw, or even some more imaginative play-calling, they would have sent the Pats to a losing record. “We should have won that game, 20-19,” said Bucs kicker Nick Folk, who missed three field goals. “This one’s on me.”

Nick Folk’s struggles in the kicking game helped bolster New England’s night. (AP)

Then there were the Pats’ unforced errors. There were two personal foul calls at the end of the first half that gave Folk a sudden chance at points. There was a mind-numbing encroachment on a punt that gave the Bucs a first down (and nearly gave Belichick an aneurism). There was the last-gasp drive that gave Winston one shot at the end zone and a walk-off win. The Pats just never slammed the door; it simply closed on the Bucs.

Brady was asked after the game if we’ve become used to the pinball point totals and we should expect more of the white-knuckle wins. He paused, almost dumbfounded for a split second.

“I should hope we can score more points than we did tonight,” he said.

We’ve seen this movie before. We all remember, “We’re on to Cincinnati.” That was in 2014, a season the Pats also started 2-2, including an unsightly loss to Kansas City. Belichick was asked then if he was reevaluating the quarterback position. The Pats went on a tear and won the Super Bowl. So much for that.

The Pats have found their gear before. It’s possible that early losses and narrow wins provide more motivational fuel for the grind Brady and Belichick relish. And, let’s face it, even if they stumble into the playoffs, they still have Tom Brady and nobody else does.

But the quarterback is 40, and the offensive line is struggling, and the defense is not imposing. The old vet still has plenty to show, but everyone else is younger, and giving chase.

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