By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Tom Brady is almost certainly on a fast track to win his third career NFL MVP award. He’s in the process of guiding the Patriots to a 13-3 season and the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC entering the postseason.
They’re overwhelming favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (at minus-125; the Steelers rank second at plus-300) and are overwhelming favorites to win a Super Bowl for the third time in four years (they’re at plus-240, with Pittsburgh and Minnesota both at plus-600).
Taken on the whole, Brady’s age 40 season has been marvelous, and he’s coming off a weekend during which he casually engineered a 77-yard game-winning drive on the road. On that final drive and including the successful two-point conversion pass, he completed four his five passes for 71 yards.
All things are presumably going well for Brady and the Patriots, but what’s gone somewhat overlooked over the past three weeks is that Brady’s play has not been outstanding, and his statistical output has slipped dramatically.
No, that’s not to suggest that Brady fell off the imaginary “cliff” once the calendar flipped to December. But the statistical output has been striking.
Brady, Weeks 1-12
111.7 passer rating
9-2 W-L record
Brady, Weeks 13-15
75.0 passer rating
2-1 W-L record
Obviously, as is the case with anything in sports, statistics do not tell the whole story. (Rex Burkhead has run for three touchdowns from inside the 3-yard line in the last three games, and Brady made some excellent throws Sunday.) And a three-game sample size against an 11-game sample size can be misleading.
But taken together with the visual, it’s been clear that Brady has not been Brady in recent weeks. He and the offense might want to get that sorted out before January rolls around.
Of course, Brady has been far from disastrous for the last three weeks, but he has made some poor decisions.
Facing pressure on a third-and-2 at his own 33 on Sunday in Pittsburgh, Brady threw off his back foot well over the head of James White for an interception that led to a Steelers touchdown.
On the opening drive in Miami in Week 14, Brady underthrew Brandin Cooks after the receiver had a step on Xavian Howard. The second-year corner was able to intercept the pass. He completed a hair under 56 percent of his passes on the night.
And three weeks ago in Buffalo, he failed to throw a touchdown for the first time since Week 1. The interception to Tre’Davious White can be mostly excused for the holding and push on Rob Gronkowski, but Gronkowski also prevented an interception earlier in the game by ripping a ball out of White’s hands.
Really, Gronkowski has been a bit of a saving grace for Brady during this stretch. The mammoth tight end has been targeted by Brady 24 times in his last two games (he was suspended for the Miami game). On those 24 passes, Brady has completed 18 of them (75 percent) for 315 yards — or 40 percent of his total passing yards in the last three games. Removing the Miami game, Gronkowski has accounted for 57 percent of Brady’s passing yards.
Without Gronkowski in Miami, Brady had his worst game of the season and his first multiple-interception regular-season game since Week 13 of the 2015 season.
On the plus side, Gronkowski will certainly be available for Brady on Sunday against the Bills. Though considering the motivation the Bills will have to deliver an extra shot or two on Gronkowski, Brady may not want to rely on the tight end too much.
And if you’re looking for a major turnaround for Brady, it might not be coming this weekend. The Bills have only allowed 11 passing touchdowns this year, which ranks No. 1 in the NFL. The Bills have the third-best passer rating against this year at 77.0, and they’re allowing a respectable 229 passing yards per game.
On the flip side, the Bills have allowed 19 rushing touchdowns — most in the NFL. They also rank 25th in overall rushing yards allowed and 18th in rushing yards allowed per attempt.
The Patriots’ offensive output from Week 13 (191 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns; 258 passing yards, zero touchdowns) went more or less in line with these stats. With a highly motivated Mike Gillislee re-entering the fold in place of Burkhead, it should be more of the same this Sunday.
So from a pure statistical standpoint, don’t expect a seven-touchdown finish to the season for Brady over the final two weeks. But the Hall of Famer has introduced a small handful of causes for concern in recent weeks, and at the very least the Patriots will need him to be more careful with the football.
The MVP award may be more or less sewn up for Brady, but some resharpening in Weeks 16 and 17 might be needed with the playoffs now just a few weeks away.