FOXBORO -- Was he injured? Just hurt? (What's the distinction there again, anyway?) Or was he just really wary of becoming either?
Tom Brady's performances against the Steelers and Bills in Weeks 15 and 16 were, by his standards, anything but standard. So we searched for reasons why. Even though after beating Buffalo he said, "I feel great. I feel 100 percent."
You wouldn't be blamed if you didn't believe him. He was avoiding contact and fading away from throws. He was missing throws when he had time.
But after Sunday's regular-season finale against the Jets? He may have changed some minds.
To say he must be 100 percent now because he threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns on 24-of-33 passing would be aggressive. Everyone's dealing with something this time of year. But he moved more fluidly and looked more confident in his base than he had previously.
Brady stepped up when he was buzzed by pressure on the edges. He stood tall in the pocket when he knew he'd be hit, and he took hits. He extended plays on occasion, rolling to his right to make an on-the-money throw to Phillip Dorsett for a second-quarter touchdown. He incorporated seven different receivers and looked comfortable in so doing.
"Yeah, that’s what we’ve got to do," Brady said when he was asked about the distribution of his passes. "I mean, to be a good offense, everyone’s got to touch it, everyone’s got to be involved in the offense and run it, throw it, throw it to everybody – the receivers, the backs, the tight ends.
"Everyone blocks in our offense, and that’s what makes it tough to defend. If they’ve got to defend everything, I feel pretty good about where we’re at. If they don’t have to worry about something, it makes it pretty tough on everyone else. So, glad we were able to score the points we did today. We’re going to need more of that in a couple weeks."
PATRIOTS 38, JETS 3
It may be trite to call Brady's performance "vintage Brady," but what else do you call it when he makes the throws he should make, when he makes them accurately and on time, when he takes what's given?
He targeted Chris Hogan 11 times in the game, including five times in the first half. Phillip Dorsett, buried on the depth chart for weeks, got an opportunity with Cordarrelle Patterson inactive and caught all five targets thrown his way.
"I'd just say he played a great game," Dorsett said when asked if he noticed anything different about Brady this week. "He stayed the course and he grinded it out. It's never perfect. People are going to have bad games. I mean, it happens. Not saying his games were bad, but I mean, it's a long season. I feel like he had a great game today."
Against the Steelers and Bills, Brady completed 38 of his 60 passes for 405 yards, two touchdowns and three picks. That was good for a completion percentage of 63.3, 6.75 yards per attempt and a 73.3 rating.
In the NFL in 2018, that's not exactly championship-caliber. The question was, with Josh Gordon removed from the equation, how would they get better? We asked it. Many did. It wasn't that the end was nigh for Brady, but if things didn't improve for the Patriots passing game, their season likely would be on the verge of coming to that screeching halt that the Patriots have felt when they're home before the Super Bowl.
PATRIOTS 38, JETS 3
For two weeks, questions floated in the Patriots locker room about how the passing game might improve. Try as they might to ignore the noise, it's hard to do when the noise is coming from someone standing in the locker room with a microphone at the ready.
"I think the thing about the guys in this locker room is everybody plays with a little chip on their shoulder," Hogan said. "Everybody wants to see if everything's going bad, it's really bad. If it's good it's not great. For us we ignore everything on the outside and we're focused on the guys in this locker room."
"We try not to listen to the outside world, but you got family, you got friends, and you hear things," Dorsett said. "We just try to be resilient. We can't really worry about what's going on outside of the building, we just gotta worry about what's going on in here and do our job and keep grinding."
Certainly Brady did. It looked like a conscious effort on his part to stay steady in the pocket and deliver. Even when he didn't, his willingness to do so with bodies nearby looked like an improvement in the category of "pocket presence."
PATRIOTS 38, JETS 3
His best work?
* He got the football out quickly and placed it perfectly when he hit James White in stride for a first-quarter touchdown.
* He threaded an 18-yard completion to Julian Edelman over the middle at the end of the first when coverage was tight.
* He lofted a dime to Rex Burkhead for a touchdown, spotting confusion from Jets linebackers and taking advantage.
* He took a hit while waiting for Hogan to uncover in the end zone and missed, but he followed that up with the Dorsett touchdown.
* He hit Hogan for eight yards to start the last Patriots drive of the first half. The throw was ugly, but his sense for spacing in the pocket, where he stepped up into some chaos and delivered, was on point.
* He uncorked long and accurate throws to Edelman and Hogan on back-to-back plays in the third -- both incomplete, though neither his fault -- to show off some arm strength.
* He stepped up again to find Edelman for a touchdown late and with the game out of hand.
"I think Tom was just ready to play," Hogan said. "I think we talked about it all week, just trying to play our best football for 60 minutes. Tommy is the type of guy that's gonna prepare as much as he can and as well as he can for every single week and this is one of those weeks where we tried to get everything going and tried to play our best and Tom showed up ready to go today.
"It's Tom Brady, man," Trey Flowers said. "That's enough said right there. He's been here 19 years. He's faced criticism, adversity, probably as much as everyone in this locker room put together. Knowing how he was going to bounce back, I wasn't worried about it. It's good to see him prove everybody wrong once again. He really don't have to but, you know, it was good to see the offense execute well today."
PATRIOTS 38, JETS 3
After two weeks of cobbling together forgettable performances in the passing game, Brady didn't necessarily need to prove to anyone that he had good football left in him. But this passing game as it was constructed had some explaining to do.
Could they be efficient enough, with their most explosive target suddenly removed from the equation, to go where they wanted to go?
Though the Jets were a mess -- playing for a lame-duck coach, benching a starting corner for packing it in a week early -- the Patriots passing game showed signs of life thanks in large part to their dialed-in quarterback.
If the rest of the football-watching world wasn't sure what to expect from Brady on Sunday, his teammates will tell you otherwise.
"That's Tom Brady, man," Flowers said. "That's the type of guy he is. Some of the things he do, he's been doing it so long so well that if he do one thing bad or a few things bad or maybe an average game, everybody thinks it's the end of him. But that's football.
"A lot of guys played well today. He played well. And it's nothing new for me because I've been watching him play well since I got here."
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