Tom Brady’s still up to the challenge

Human decency is in decline. Civil discourse between opposing parties is in decline. The quality of airline travel is definitely in decline. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is not in decline. He never was. That was a figment of the football imagination.

The declarations of Brady’s declination that floated across the Twitterverse and the radio airwaves earlier this season when the Patriots’ offense was crawling along like Route 128 traffic look about as accurate as the prognostications of the Brooklyn Nets being NBA contenders. Instead of passing into the twilight of his career, the 36-year-old Brady is passing the Patriots into their usual place in the AFC hierarchy.

It turns out Brady isn’t in a downward spiral. He is just throwing spirals. TB12 is playing his best football of the season, leading the Patriots to back-to-back comeback wins over Denver and Houston. It’s another gridiron Groundhog Day around here, as the Patriots face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Gillette Stadium with a chance to clinch the AFC East crown if they win and Miami loses or ties.

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Doubting Thomas or his team is never a good idea.

I declined to believe that Brady was in decline. No one is infallible, but blaming Brady for the Patriots’ early-season offensive struggles is like blaming your car for not starting when you forgot to fill the gas tank.

I get it. Everyone is concerned about the ever-narrowing window in which the Patriots have to take advantage of Brady’s franchise quarterback play. Father time is going to eventually sack Brady.

But it’s mind-boggling that in a season where the institutional knowledge of the offense was uprooted around him that at the first sign of an errant throw the conclusion was the canonized quarterback had lost his fastball.

The more logical conclusion would be that he was playing in a passing attack diminished by defections, injuries, inexperience, and one very high-profile incarceration. Instead, it was Brady was over the hill and headed downhill.

He can’t throw the deep ball anymore, they chided. He can’t handle the pass rush, they declared. He can’t be consistently accurate, they bemoaned.

All that was missing was Terry Francona pinch-hitting for Brady in Toronto and ESPN reporting Brady’s release was imminent. Wait, wrong athlete in alleged decline.

Over his last five games, a span starting Oct. 27, Brady has completed 68.8 percent of his passes. The only quarterback in that time with a higher completion percentage is Drew Brees (69.2). Brady’s 8.38 yards per attempt are also the second-best in the league since Oct. 27, trailing only Arizona’s Carson Palmer (8.52).

In his last five games, Brady has averaged of 311.8 passing yards and thrown 11 touchdowns with three interceptions.

Don’t look now, but the Patriots’ passing attack ranks in the top 10 in the NFL for the first time all season. It moved up to 10th this week, averaging 255 yards per game, after Brady threw for 371 yards in a 34-31 win over the Texans last Sunday.

The Patriots are sixth in the league in points per game (26.8) and ninth in total offense (377.8 yards per game).

When Brady won his last MVP award in 2010, the Patriots’ passing attack ranked 11th in the NFL.

The defense carried the Patriots for the first five games of the season, when Brady and the offense were karaoke off-key. But a combination of significant and nagging injuries have hit the defense hard. Instead of “next man up,” the slogan for the Patriots’ defense should be “last man standing.”

Now, it’s Brady and the offense that are being asked to compensate for a defense in transition.

Let’s be honest. Given the injury-riddled state of the Patriots’ defense, if you swapped quarterbacks in Sunday’s game, the Browns would be favored to beat the Patriots.

Cleveland has some talent — some dummy (author reluctantly raises his hand) said he wouldn’t trade for Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon.

What the woebegone Browns don’t have and haven’t had since they were reincarnated in 1999 is a quarterback. Like the Patriots, the Browns drafted a quarterback in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. They took Spergon Wynn with the 183d selection. Brady went 16 selections later to the Patriots.

The Browns have used 18 quarterbacks since 2001. They would take Brady, diminished or not, in a heartbeat.

Bill Belichick is half Vince Lombardi, half Da Vinci as a football coach. But the biggest difference between his coaching stint in Cleveland and here in New England isn’t personal discovery or enlightenment. It’s having No. 12.

Just ask old Pumped and Jacked Pete Carroll how much smarter you can be with a QB in tow.

Brady’s overall statistics are pedestrian by his standards — 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 60.7 completion percentage — but look at what he has had to work with.

Tight end nonpareil Rob Gronkowski missed the first six games of the season. Trusted third-down back Shane Vereen missed nine games with a wrist injury. The Patriots are down to their third-string right tackle in Will Svitek.

Brady has turned Julian Edelman, a punt returner and former college quarterback, into a No. 1 receiver. Edelman is eighth in the league in receptions. He has one more reception this season (70) than he had in his previous four NFL seasons.

The team’s big offseason acquisition at wide receiver, Danny Amendola, has as many touchdowns receptions this season as tight end Matthew Mulligan — one.

The team’s leading rusher, Stevan Ridley, can’t hold on to the ball and was mothballed last Sunday by Belichick, drawing a healthy scratch.

As usual for the Patriots, it’s Brady or bust.

If Brady is in decline, then he’s going down in a blaze of glory, to borrow the words of Belichick buddy Jon Bon Jovi.