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Are Patriots hiding Tom Brady?

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Fullback James Develin and the pairing of Sony Michel and James White, the Patriots have run it well most of the season. Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Sunday’s smashmouth, run-heavy approach was not an aberration for the New England Patriots.

Behind an excellent run-blocking front, fullback James Develin and the pairing of Sony Michel and James White, the Patriots have run it well most of the season. They’ve even made the run game the centerpiece of their offense for stretches, like in the 38-7 steamrolling of the Dolphins that we broke down in Week 4.

New England did just that in its 24-12 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, totaling 47 runs against just 26 dropbacks and racking up 273 yards on the ground (compared to 117 through the air). It wasn’t just a matter of running to kill clock – the Patriots had 20 rushes against 14 dropbacks before halftime, including a stretch of 10 straight runs in the first quarter. They also called runs on nine of their first 13 plays after halftime, despite the Bills closing to within one score.

It might simply have been a one-week, opponent-specific approach; after all, it worked like a charm. The Patriots pried open alleys all day using power and counter schemes, most featuring Develin and many with tight end Dwayne Allen also in the backfield. They exploited the Bills on the perimeter as well, with crack tosses and jet sweeps to Cordarrelle Patterson.

But what if the game plan was borne of necessity?

If it weren’t Tom Brady back there, we’d all say New England played like it was trying to hide its quarterback. None of Brady’s 24 attempts traveled more than 20 yards downfield, and his only throw longer than 13 yards was well out of bounds. Of his 13 completions, just three traveled more than 5 yards beyond the line, and six traveled 3 yards or fewer.

Brady’s stat line (13 of 24, 126 yards, one TD, two INTs) looked like that of a QB who needed to be hidden. His passer rating (48.3) was the sixth-worst of his career as a starter, and his worst in more than 12 years. While the interceptions were both unlucky – the first was a miscommunication with Rex Burkhead, and the second went through Rob Gronkowski’s hands – Brady also threw a pass right to linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who dropped it.

Speculation has mounted about Brady battling a possible injury, as he has favored his left knee since injuring it after throwing a touchdown to Gronkowski in Week 14. He told reporters after Sunday’s win he’s “100 percent” and “not injured.” It was still strange to see Brian Hoyer enter with more than six minutes remaining.

Hurt or not, Brady has looked less and less like his old self on film, especially with bodies around him. The issues flashed at times earlier this season (especially vs. the Jaguars and Titans) and have become regular in recent weeks.

One of the best ever at sliding in the pocket and resetting to throw, he has barely attempted such plays of late.

Instead, Brady often drifts backward when he sees pressure, a nasty habit that invites more pressure by giving edge rushers friendlier angles.

Tom Brady’s stat line looked like that of a QB who needed to be hidden. Reuters

His arm hasn’t been able to compensate for the lack of a firm base, leaving a bunch of throws short and wide of the mark.

And opponents have taken notice.

Teams all but gave up blitzing Brady last season, but they are becoming more willing.

Even when not bringing extra rushers, many opponents are using zone exchanges (dropping a lineman and sending a linebacker or defensive back) to create pressure, as the Bills did Sunday.

These designs don’t have to get home all the time – just getting close can disrupt Brady’s platform, forcing an awkward throw or compelling him to drift.

These are the types of issues that began surfacing with Peyton Manning near the end, and Manning’s issues stemmed from an injury.

After throwing 22 touchdowns against three picks through seven games in 2014, Manning battled a torn quad and fell apart over the final nine games (17 TDs, 12 INTs) before a near-lifeless home playoff loss to the Colts.

A year later, Manning was fighting plantar fasciitis and throwing balloons to defenders.

It didn’t matter how sharp his mind was, because any flash of pressure was enough to derail the play, as throws from less-than-perfect platforms became nearly impossible.

But Brady’s situation is less extreme. He did make an off-schedule play Sunday (a 10-yard gain to Julian Edelman), and he’s proven better than anyone at preserving his body.

With a light load in Weeks 16 and 17 and a likely first-round bye to rest, perhaps he’ll look spry as ever in the playoffs.

Brady and the Patriots have made many look foolish for prematurely announcing their demise. Even if No. 12 is a step below his normal self in January, New England might have enough for another Lombardi Trophy with an expansive running game, steady defense and the best coach in NFL history.

Still, the 2018 version of Brady has looked closer to mortal, with numbers down across the board. Even the most pliable of 41-year-olds have trouble remaining 100 percent healthy, and minor injuries bring broader consequences with age.

The end might not be imminent, but the margin for error has shrunk considerably.

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