FOXBORO -- Organizations around the NFL have long since figured out that defending Tom Brady often means death by a thousand cuts. With an accurate arm, an ability to diagnose quickly, and receivers who excel in the short-to-intermediate range on the field, Brady has carefully carved his way to becoming one of the best to ever play his position.
There was a time when Brady had the game's best deep threat at his disposal in Randy Moss, and the offense shifted. But since then, as game plans have centered more around the abilities of his slot receivers, pass-catching backs and tight ends, Brady has gone back to being the league's preeminent surgeon.
During Sunday's 33-13 win over the Browns, however, Brady showcased that long-ball aspect of his game once again. He completed 4-of-6 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, racking up 180 yards and a touchdown on those attempts.
It was a rare aerial display for the 39-year-old. According to data compiled by Pro Football Focus, Brady's first game back from a four-game suspension was his most productive deep down the field since he completed 4-of-6 deep throws for 193 yards and two scores in a Week 9 win over the Steelers back in 2013.
Brady explained on Wednesday that although he was not able to participate in practice or enter the Patriots facilities during his suspension, he worked to stay sharp with his mechanics, which helped lead to his prolific performance against the Browns.
"I’ve always worked pretty hard on my mechanics and making sure I’m doing things the right way mechanically," he said. "I think that’s translated into a lot of throws, but hopefully I can hit those ones down the field. Those are big ones. They change the whole field positon."
Brady hit on two such throws to receiver Chris Hogan (for 63 and 43 yards) in the second quarter. He also completed one down the right sideline to tight end Martellus Bennett for a 37-yard score in the third quarter, and he hit tight end Rob Gronkowski down the seam for another big-gainer in the fourth.
The odds may not be in Brady's favor in terms of his ability to replicate his down-the-field performance this week against the Bengals. Last year, he hit on multiple passes that traveled 20 yards or more in the air in seven of 18 games, including playoffs. And only four times between that win over Pittsburgh in 2013 and last weekend has Brady accumulated 100 yards or more on those throws.
Brady understands the payoff of those deep attempts, though, and given the number of options he seems to trust in the passing game this season, maybe he'll be willing to take more shots in 2016.
"It shows up on the stat sheet a little differently," Brady said, "but the production is great when you’re able to kind of hit those homerun balls."