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Brady is passing the true test

FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady in a slump?

It's hard to imagine after a 24-3 win over Baltimore and a 42-15 romp over Cleveland the last two weeks.

Bill Belichick's less-than-auspicious start as coach of the Patriots (5-13) turned around, coincidentally, when Brady's tenure as the starting quarterback began early in the 2001 season. Two Super Bowl wins later, you would be hard pressed to get the Patriots coach to acknowledge anything but the wins Brady has been a part of.

"I think that, overall, he has done a pretty good job of managing the team and that is really what his job is, manage the team and win games," Belichick said yesterday. "The Baltimore game was a difficult situation in terms of weather, field conditions, etc. Last week, Cleveland was a little bit of an unusual game the way it started out and just kind of the way it evolved, and we ran the ball pretty well and so, that is what his job is, to manage the game.

"When you win, 42-15, and beat Baltimore, 24-3, then I think he is doing a pretty good job of helping to manage it, along with a lot of other people."

It's hard to believe that a quarterback who wins week after week would come under scrutiny for missing a few throws. Such is life at the top.

Asked if he is concerned about Brady, Belichick said, "I'm concerned about winning."

Certainly Brady's numbers have dropped, but not off the charts. His 58.5 completion percentage is the lowest of his career, and it's the first time he's been under 60 percent this late in a season. Against Baltimore, he registered a 67.6 quarterback rating, his second lowest of the season to the 62.6 he posted in a 24-10 win over Miami Oct. 10. Last week against Cleveland, Brady had a 76.5 quarterback rating and completed 11 of 20 passes (55 percent), after hitting on 15 of 30 attempts against the Ravens. He has passed for fewer than 200 yards in consecutive games. Another thing to consider: Every week Brady is listed on the injury report as probable (shoulder). Last Sunday, he took an inordinate amount of warmup throws on the sideline.

While a request to speak to offensive coordinator Charlie Weis on the topic was denied by the Patriots, when Weis did speak a few weeks ago about Brady and the offense, he noted that Brady is throwing the ball down the field more than ever. Weis cited the acquisition of Corey Dillon as a main factor because Dillon now gains the short yardage Brady used to need to pick up with passes.

The Patriots, it appears, will gladly trade a few points off Brady's completion percentage and quarterback rating for the occasional big play.

"The important number for me is the score at the end of the game," Belichick said. "And I think that's the quarterback's job, to manage the team."

Belichick also noted other important factors in a quarterback's play, such as lack of turnovers, production, third-down conversions, and red-zone efficiency.

"We can talk about quarterback stats all day. And then you talk about wins and sometimes they're correlated, but a lot of times they aren't," said Belichick. "You can pick up the paper on Monday and see some of the highest-producing quarterbacks, some of the highest numbers, the most yards and touchdowns and all that, and it doesn't always correlate with wins. What we try to emphasize is winning. And it's not stat-related, although a quarterback's production is related to winning." Dillon's presence has also changed the Patriots' offense from a pass-first to a run-first unit.

"It proves when you get it to him the type of things that can happen," Brady said of Dillon. "You control the clock. It seems every time we give it to him, there are positive things happening. There is a good reason why we are giving it to him. I'm glad it has been consistent. I think the offensive line has done a great job of getting on their blockers and giving Corey a chance to hit it up in there and gain some yards, and he has done a great job of doing that."

Brady admits it's been different, but 11-1, he says, speaks for itself. He sounds much like Belichick when talking about the passing game..

"We can always get better," said Brady. "There are plenty of things to improve on. I think that is what we are going out and trying to do in practice each day. Some weeks it shows up better than others, the type of improvement we are making, and sometimes you take a step back. We are just going to continue to go out and try to work at it."

Belichick didn't say whether he thought Brady was playing at the top of his game, instead indicating, "I think every player can play better. I think every group can play better. I think that that's the direction we need to work in, and that includes everybody that's wearing a uniform. Every single guy. We collectively can improve as a team and individually there are things we can do better than the way we are doing them. We are at the point in the season where everybody needs to address that, and that will help us more than anything else. Those are my exact words to the team this morning. That includes everybody."

Is the quarterback in a slump?

It's a crazy question for a team that is 11-1, the only statistic Belichick and Brady seem to care about.

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