<
>

Tom Brady caps off brilliant stretch

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With a locker directly next to quarterback Tom Brady, and a growing connection with him based on the position he plays, New England Patriots receiver Brandon LaFell has had an up-close, behind-the-scenes view of one of the NFL's great turnaround stories of the past month.

What Brady has accomplished since an embarrassing blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 29 has been remarkable; he's 100-of-144 for 1,268 yards, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions.

But while the personal stats have exploded -- the Patriots have improved from 2-2 to 6-2 with Sunday's 51-23 blowout victory over the Chicago Bears putting an exclamation point on the four-game stretch -- what stands out to LaFell is that Brady himself has done anything but change.

"It's his attitude. Even though we weren't playing great ball the first couple games, he never came in here and was down on himself or down on anybody," LaFell said after Sunday's victory, a convincing, across-the-board effort that raises the team's confidence entering next weekend's highly anticipated rematch of the AFC Championship Game against the visiting Denver Broncos.

"He always encouraged everybody and made us work extra after practice and pulled us into meetings. He always said, 'The next game might be the one we explode, so be ready.'"

The Patriots finally exploded Sunday against the Bears, with Brady accomplishing something he'd never done over the past nine years.

In finishing 30-of-35 for 354 yards and five touchdowns, he didn't have a single off-target pass in the game, the first time that's happened since ESPN's Stats & Information began tracking that data in 2006. Of Brady's five incompletions, three were dropped passes (two by Julian Edelman, one by Shane Vereen), while he was 20-for-20 targeting LaFell (11 catches, 124 yards, TD) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (nine catches, 149 yards, three TDs).

"He was meticulous with his throws today," Bears coach Marc Trestman marveled. "We had people covering very close, lots of contested throws, so he was almost perfect with every throw. … Offensively, we caught them at a time when they were certainly at their best."

The remarkably accurate performance ended the same way Brady's night did Sept. 29 against the Chiefs -- with him being pulled in the fourth quarter because the outcome was well in hand. Only this time, Brady wasn't sitting alone on the bench, the agony there for everyone to see. Instead, Brady was all smiles as the Gillette Stadium crowd serenaded him with chants of "Bra-dy! Bra-dy! Bra-dy!" when he was shown on the videoboard.

Earlier, the crowd roared when it was noted that Sunday marked his 100th career regular-season start at home and that with 87 victories, he has the best home winning percentage of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era (minimum 40 games).

No, Brady didn't have any remarks for the scoreboard operator like Peyton Manning did in Denver on Thursday night. But, as always, he's looking forward to another matchup against his longtime rival next Sunday.

"It will be a great game; it always is. It's always pretty meaningful," he said of facing a Manning-led team for a 16th time. "Playing at home, we understand the challenge that they're one of the best teams in football, so we're going to need to play our best. Hopefully we do."

Brady himself has been at his best the past four weeks, with Sunday his top performance to date, a result of receiving excellent protection from the offensive line. Throwing as many touchdowns as he did incompletions, it was his fifth career game with at least 350 passing yards and five touchdowns without an interception, the most of any quarterback over that span (2001-2014). Drew Brees has three and Manning two.

But, as Brady reminded reporters Sunday, that guarantees nothing next week, which is why he'll be back at the team facility early Monday to put himself through another grind that includes multiple meetings with coach Bill Belichick. It's the type of approach that has endeared him to teammates and Belichick.

"I love coaching Tom," Belichick said. "We spend a considerable amount of time together, and I think that's important to have that relationship between the head coach and the quarterback, so at least we're on the same page with what we're trying to do.

"He has great feedback. Nobody works harder or prepares better than Tom does. He's about as good as it gets in that category, with a lot of great ideas. He's a very smart, experienced player, obviously, and does a great job executing the team game plan."

So, just as he never wavered after the loss to the Chiefs, Brady isn't about to alter course after such a satisfying win, which brings us back to his locker mate LaFell.

"He's like this every day in practice," LaFell relayed. "What's been so good about here is that the looks we get at practice with our scout team, we come out here and it's allowed us to play fast. We've seen the look and Tom is already throwing the ball like that all week, which has allowed us to play faster."

LaFell then reflected on last year, when he was with the Carolina Panthers, and how he studied Brady with former teammate Steve Smith in the days leading up to a game against the Patriots.

"The ball placement is perfect -- every route across the middle, the ball is in your stomach. On the sidelines, it's only where you can catch it [or] out of bounds," he said. "The dude is great. His résumé speaks for itself. Since I've been here, he's lived up to it."

Especially in the past four weeks.