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Option quarterback

When Tom Brady takes aim, it makes no difference whether it's a No. 1 receiver, starting inside linebacker, or offensive tackle running the patterns -- he's just looking for the open guy

FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady has a favorite receiver.

You can see it when he's stressed by a pressure defense and the Patriots need to make a play.

At those times, Brady always goes to the one guy he knows he can count on: No. 83 . . . or No. 87 . . . or maybe No. 82, or definitely No. 80, or 84 or 86 or 88.

Oh actually, when you think about it, his favorite has to be No. 50. He has the highest TDP (touchdowns per play) on the offense; pretty impressive for a linebacker. Then again, Brady has thrown the ball to No. 68 every time he's been open, so he must be Tommy Boy's favorite. (Then again, No. 68 has been open only once.)

Therein lies the key.

Brady's favorite receiver, the one he'll be looking for tomorrow night against Jacksonville, is the guy who is open. It's as simple as that.

Brady threw touchdown passes to 12 receivers this season, tying the NFL record for most TD targets by a quarterback in a year (Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson in 2003).

All six receivers on the squad (not including rookie Bam Childress, who was put on the roster last week) have touchdown catches. All three tight ends have scoring grabs. Only one running back had a TD reception this year, but Mike Vrabel, the aforementioned linebacker, and tackle Tom Ashworth, No. 68, have each scored on Brady passes, Vrabel three times.

''You have a lot of guys around there that can make plays," tight end Daniel Graham said. ''So you can't just throw the ball to one person, because we have guys that when they do get the ball, they can do a lot of things.

''There are a lot of weapons on our offense, so why not use them?"

That's certainly Brady's approach.

The Patriots call plays that are more or less designed to go to a particular pass catcher -- and Deion Branch led the team this season with 78 catches for 998 yards -- but whether that receiver gets the ball depends more on what the defense is trying to accomplish than play design.

The Patriots don't have a Randy Moss Rule -- which states that a predetermined percentage of passes must go to one wideout.

''You can't really control that," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ''[You can say] 'OK, we want to try to get the ball to so and so,' or, 'We want to try to throw it on so and so,' but depending on that particular play, if that is where the guy is double covered . . . that's just low-percentage passing.

''There are a lot better options on the field than doing that, in my opinion. You tell the quarterback, 'OK, let's throw the ball to this guy,' and he has two guys around him. Then what are you going to do? You throw it in there and get it picked off, now what do you tell the quarterback? I just think it's low-percentage football."

As described by one NFL scout, the Patriots have a ''reactionary" passing game, one that doesn't push a defense around the field, but takes advantage of soft spots. Often those holes in a defense are not exposed until after the snap.

''I think that's the advantage of the passing game, to keep your options open and go where there are fewer people rather than where there are more," Belichick said.

Brady could be the best in the league at seeing what's there and hitting the weak spot in a secondary. Rarely does he risk a turnover by forcing the ball.

''It opens up our offense," Graham said. ''A defense can't just key on one person. You know that if you get open, Tom is going to get the ball to you and you have the opportunity to catch the ball and make plays."

The players don't particularly know when those opportunities will be there, but when it is time to strike, they usually do. They know Brady doesn't play favorites when it comes to putting points on the board.

Vrabel (three catches, three touchdowns) and Ashworth, who scored on a 1-yard catch when he lined up at fullback against Tampa Bay, are the lead strikers, but they are merely goal-line weapons.

Bethel Johnson has been in and out of the lineup with injuries and has only four catches, but one went 55 yards for a score. Andre' Davis, who wasn't even on the team for several weeks and has barely played half the season, has just nine catches (six from Brady), but mixed in a 60-yarder for a TD.

Graham has been slowed by injury as well and had only 16 catches overall, but took three to the house. His backup, Christian Fauria, has only eight catches, with two touchdowns.

Tailback Corey Dillon, often the last option on pass plays and rarely in on third downs, has snared 22 passes. He didn't have a touchdown catch in four of his first seven years in the league, but has one in each of his two seasons with the Patriots.

Tight end Benjamin Watson, a quasi rookie playing his first full season, has four touchdown receptions among his 29 catches (three TDs, 27 receptions from Brady).

Branch, who finished the regular season with 19 more catches for 260 more yards than David Givens, second in both categories, had just one more touchdown than Watson with almost 50 more catches.

Tim Dwight has seen little action at receiver, typically only when somebody is injured or to spell a starter, but he has turned three of his 19 total grabs into 6 points, and made clutch catches in key situations, such as the 59-yard catch on the game-winning drive at Miami. Dwight, in his first season with the Patriots, loves the spot duty.

''I think, looking back on my career, the times I would go in and be fresh I was more effective than the times I was always in there pounding away," he said. ''With [Branch, Givens] and Troy [Brown], and Andre' is starting to really step up huge, you can spread the ball around. You don't have to be relied on as much because you have so much other talent around. So it's more beneficial.

''My years in San Diego, where I was playing quite a bit, it definitely puts wear and tear on you when you're worrying about safeties all the time and trying to run post routes and doing reverses, and a lot of stuff. Whereas here, it's 'just focus on that, just focus on this.' We'll give you two or three things to do."

Belichick said those two things are ''get open and catch the ball."

Perhaps that is why Branch leads the team in receptions.

''Deion is open on every play," Brady said.

But it is also why so many others have contributed to the Patriots' passing game.

''You turn around and no one's covering you, Tom Brady will get the ball to you," Watson said. ''It's as simple as that. You do your job, and he'll do his."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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