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Friday, September 23, 2011
The rise of Tom Brady

By Adam Schefter
ESPN.com

Ten years ago on Friday, the NFL returned to action after postponing the season for a week because of 9/11. And it was through that action that NFL history occurred without most realizing it. On Sept. 23, 2001, New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis slammed into Drew Bledsoe so hard that the New England Patriots quarterback was rushed to the hospital with severe internal bleeding in his chest.

Bledsoe could have died, but his injury gave life to the legend of Tom Brady.

Since then, the world and the NFL have changed dramatically. Various players and teams have shined but, by and large, Brady has ruled the league. Brady has been the NFL's best player and one of the greatest of all time. He has led New England to three Super Bowl titles. And he got his chance thanks to a hit that still is felt 10 years later.

Now, through two games, as New England heads into Buffalo for a meaningful early-season matchup, Brady is putting up numbers that rival the historic stats he posted during the Patriots' unbeaten 2007 regular season. Four years ago, Brady threw for six touchdowns, one interception and 576 yards in New England's first two games. This season, he has thrown for seven touchdowns, one interception and 940 yards in New England's first two games. The Patriots have scored at least 30 points in 10 consecutive regular-season games, four games short of the NFL record the St. Louis Rams set in 1999-2000, when they scored 30-plus in 14 straight games. With Brady playing as well as he ever has, the Rams' record and another Vince Lombardi Trophy seem attainable.

Our society and sports constantly recognize significant anniversaries. None in the NFL is any more significant than the hit that changed the next decade.

On to this week's 10 Spot:
Grossman
Quarterback Rex Grossman thinks this is the season his undefeated Redskins win the NFC East.
1. Future forecast: When he said it in August, most football fans scoffed at it, even mocked him for it. But Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman believed, even before he was named the team's starter. In early August, Grossman told CSNWashington.com: "We're just waiting in the wings, ready to take over the NFC East. Nobody's talking about us. That's right where we want to be. You look at us from top to bottom out here, there's a bunch of great players. And we don't need people saying we're the best right now, but when it's all said and done, I really feel like this team's gonna win the East."

Now, Grossman's message doesn't seem as farfetched as it once did. Two games into the season, the Redskins are the division's only unbeaten team. They've won home games against the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals and are preparing for their first road game against the Dallas Cowboys on "Monday Night Football."

Washington's divisional opponents -- the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants -- already have suffered key injuries, while Washington's have been manageable. The Redskins' defense, which is better than people realize, will use its strong pass rush to get to Tony Romo. There's still a long way to go, but Grossman has been good and the Redskins better.

Grossman still might have been overly optimistic in August, but one thing is undeniable: The Redskins are relevant again.

2. No sacks allowed: Attention has been showered on the Detroit Lions' foundation -- quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- and rightfully so. But through two games, the Lions are the only team in the league that has yet to surrender a sack.

From left to right, Detroit's starting offensive line of tackle Jeff Backus, guard Rob Sims, center Dominic Raiola, guard Stephen Peterman and tackle Gosder Cherilus has been a fortress. It has protected Stafford, given him time and barely allowed him to be touched.

And it's pretty simple: If Stafford stays healthy, the Lions will stay in the playoff chase as a capable challenger to the Green Bay Packers.

3. Struggling on D: Green Bay is 2-0, but the Packers still have plenty to correct, especially on their league-worst pass defense. Through two games, Green Bay has surrendered 800 passing yards, the second-most passing yards a team has allowed in the first two games of the season. The only team worse was last year's Houston Texans with 822 passing yards.

But now comes an NFC Championship Game rematch against the Chicago Bears and Jay Cutler, who has yet to light up Green Bay the way New Orleans QB Drew Brees and the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton have this season. In two seasons versus the Packers, Cutler has four touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Chicago wants payback, but Green Bay needs improvement.

4. Center of attention: At the time, nobody could have recognized how significant it was when the Jets claimed undrafted rookie free-agent center Colin Baxter off waivers from the San Diego Chargers on Sept. 4. But after the Jets' Pro Bowl center, Nick Mangold, went down Sunday with a high ankle sprain, Baxter was called on to replace him.

Baxter is about to face a murderers' row of defensive linemen. The Jets now embark on a three-game trip to Oakland, Baltimore and New England. If Baxter plays in all three, he could line up opposite Richard Seymour, Haloti Ngata and Vince Wilfork.

Welcome to the NFL.

The last time the Jets traveled to Oakland, quarterback Mark Sanchez had enough time to eat a hot dog on the bench. This time he won't have that luxury.

5. Thinking ahead: It makes total sense that the Ravens would rush to re-sign Ngata this week to a five-year, $61 million deal that runs through the 2015 season. It was done with an eye on the future.

Now, with Ngata under contract, the Ravens will be able to use their franchise tag in 2012 on running back Ray Rice, who is in the last year of his contract. Then in 2013, they will be able to use their franchise tag on quarterback Joe Flacco, who has two years left on his contract.

The best organizations, of which Baltimore is one, make moves now that pay off even more later.

Cam Newton
Cam Newton learned a lot from Tom Brady, and it shows.
6. School's in session: Brady and Newton became the first two players in NFL history to throw for at least 400 yards in each of his team's first two games of a season. But the connection between the two quarterbacks dates beyond the past two weeks.

Brady and Newton spent about six hours together in late June in Los Angeles filming an Under Armour commercial. Throughout the day, Newton peppered Brady with questions, and the Patriots' quarterback was only too happy to dispense advice.

Brady's words that day stayed with Newton all through the summer and in the days leading up to Carolina's games against Arizona and Green Bay. Newton's offseason quarterbacks coach, George Whitfield, said Brady stressed the importance of being a student of football and developing an appetite for it.

"I definitely know his words stayed with him," Whitfield said. "From an endorsement standpoint, Brady is like his older brother. He took him under his wing, and Cam listened closely to what Brady had to say."

7. From bad to worse: The Kansas City Chiefs are struggling this season, but its struggles date to last season.

It lost last season's regular-season finale to the Oakland Raiders 31-10. It lost in the playoffs 30-7 to the Baltimore Ravens. It lost on opening weekend this season to the Buffalo Bills 41-7. And it lost last Sunday at the Detroit Lions 48-3.

Kansas City now has lost its past four games by at least 21 points, being outscored 150-27. The Chiefs' minus-79 point differential this season is the worst for a defending division champion through two games in NFL history.

And it gets worse.

The Chiefs close the season with games at New England, against Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at the Jets, against Green Bay, against Oakland and at the Broncos.

A long season looks like it could get even longer.

8. Coast to coast: The Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers face an added challenge Sunday. Both teams travel to the East Coast to play an early Sunday game.

It means players must awaken earlier than usual, with their biological clocks disrupted from their routine. Not that it can't be overcome, because it can.

But last Sunday, the three western teams that traveled East for early games -- Arizona, Oakland, Seattle -- all lost. Later in the day, another west-to-east team, San Diego, also lost at New England.

The Cardinals and Raiders easily could have emerged victorious, and almost did, but it just goes to prove that in games that already are tough to win, West Coast teams have one more obstacle.

It's a little thing, true. But little things make the difference in the big picture.

9. Cursed: There's a Madden cover curse and a curse of the defending rushing champion. In each of the past five seasons, the running back who led the league in rushing watched his production fall off the very next season.

Texans running back Arian Foster is finding out why some of his rushing leader predecessors struggled. At least three times this season, Foster has hurt his hamstring, most recently on Sunday.

Foster already is on the verge of becoming the sixth straight rushing champ not to beat his rushing total from one season earlier. And with the emergence of Texans running back Ben Tate, Foster even could challenge Shaun Alexander for the greatest drop for a rushing champ from one season to the next.

In 2006, Alexander rushed for 896 yards -- 984 yards fewer than the season before, when he won the NFL rushing title. Foster had 1,616 rushing yards last season and has 33 through two games this season.

10. Moving on up: As if the offseason weren't tumultuous enough for many league employees, now the NFL is going through the unpleasant process of moving.

For the past week, employees have been packing up their offices at 280 Park Ave. in New York to move five blocks away at 345 Park Ave. The lease for the building the NFL had been using expires in February, and the league was offered a more favorable 20-year lease arrangement.

Starting last Friday and continuing through Sept. 30, the league will be moving what has been the headquarters of so many important meetings to its new venue.

The Schef's specialties

•  Game of the week: New England at Buffalo -- If ever the Bills had a chance, this would be it. New England's 31st-rated pass defense versus Buffalo's top-rated passing offense.

•  Player of the week: Chargers QB Philip Rivers -- The Chiefs' defense has allowed eight touchdown passes in the first two weeks.

•  Upset of the week: Raiders over Jets -- Just like it's challenging for West Coast teams to come East, it's not easy for East Coast teams to go West.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.