New England Patriots  

 

Tom Brady lifts Patriots, proves yet again he's the best QB ever

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You can talk about all the distractions that have been swirling around the New England Patriots in recent months. You can bring up the intriguing drama that has been reported over the past year as well. Just don't think it has any impact on this team as long as Tom Brady is under center. Regardless of what is happening in and around this franchise, he keeps proving why he's the best quarterback that ever lived.

Brady certainly has played better games than he did in Sunday's 27-20 win over the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. What he's rarely done is walk into a season opener with as many questions swirling around this team as there were this weekend. We've heard all about the reported friction between Brady and New England head coach Bill Belichick, the tension that Brady's personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, has created within the franchise, the frustration Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski felt about his contract (before it was recently revised) and all the missing faces from last year's Super Bowl team (including wide receivers Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks). The Patriots didn't even have the services of slot receiver Julian Edelman on Sunday, as he currently is serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

None of that stuff was an issue for Brady against the Texans. He simply did what he's done his entire career -- he made the plays he had to make and then set his expectations even higher for the next challenge.

"We didn't play anywhere near our capabilities," Brady said after completing 26 of 39 passes for 277 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. "It's good to win, obviously. But we have to do a lot better than that. To turn the ball over and not take advantage of some of the opportunities out there, I think we'd all look at that game and say we could've done a lot of things differently."

This is coming from a quarterback who was playing with easily his most limited supporting cast in a long time. Take away Gronkowski and the Patriots started this game with an assortment of players who weren't going to intimidate anybody. Wide receiver Phillip Dorsett entered Sunday's game with 63 career receptions in three seasons. The other starting wideout, Chris Hogan, has been a backup most of his career. The leading ball-carrier for New England was Rex Burkhead, who gained 64 yards on 18 carries ... and put himself on a strong pace to eclipse the career-high of 344 yards he gained for Cincinnati in 2016.

There were enough reasons for the Patriots to fall to a Texans squad that has enough talent to win the AFC South. However, Houston wound up being the team that sputtered and struggled and ultimately beat itself with huge mistakes and missed opportunities. Brady spread the football around to eight different receivers, using every last weapon at his disposal. Gronkowski and Dorsett were the main beneficiaries -- each caught seven passes -- and fullback James Develin, a player who had a total of nine receptions over the last two years, finished with four catches of his own Sunday.

The fact that so many players contributed to this win said plenty about Brady's brilliance. Regardless of what he's working with, he finds a way to make everyone around him better.

"He's a great quarterback," said Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu, who was facing Brady for the first time in his six-year career. "He's everything I expected him to be. He's very smart, very cerebral and has a great understanding of pre-snap and post-snap assignments. He did a lot of great things for his team today, but I think we did a lot of self-inflicting things today."

Added Dorsett: "He has that confidence in his receivers. He expects us to run our routes a certain way and he has the confidence that we're going to catch the ball."

In fairness to Brady's teammates, they deserve ample credit for Sunday's result. As dominant as the Texans can be with their pass rush, they only sacked Brady twice. The defense flustered Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson all day and allowed Houston to convert just 2 of 11 third-down attempts. Dorsett also proved how far he's come in one season. Since being traded by the Colts at the start of last season -- the same team that made him a first-round pick in 2015 -- he's flashed more potential in New England's offense than he ever displayed in Indianapolis.

The key to that overall success by the Patriots is something Brady stated in his post-game press conference: The standards never change around Foxborough. It doesn't matter who is blocking or running routes or carrying the football. As long as Brady is running the offense, the expectation is that it'll do enough to help this team win. Said Dorsett: "For us to play well as an offense, we all have to play well."

"That's the point of playing football," Brady said when asked about his supporting cast. "It's not, 'Oh, this guy, this is what his level of expectation is [so] that is what we should put the team's expectation at.' It's that if you're in the slot, you've got to play as well as any slot receiver we've ever had. You can't sit there and go, 'Oh well, that's OK because you're not quite there yet.' You've got to coach hard and you've got to correct guys and you've got to correct yourself and have high expectations for yourself."

As Brady said, the Patriots were far from their best on Sunday. They were only 4 of 14 on third down. They didn't have the seamless rhythm or the bevy of big plays that have become staples of this offense over the years. There were plenty of moments early in the contest when New England was sluggish on that side of the football.

The difference in the game was that New England has a quarterback who has seen just about everything imaginable over the course of 19 seasons. He's a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who can thrive in literally any kind of circumstance he faces. So while it may be true that there are plenty of issues hovering around the Patriots as they pursue yet another championship, there's also little reason to believe that any of that stuff really matters. As long as Tom Brady is healthy, this team will end up being just fine.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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