Every team should be so lucky. Heading into last week's game with the Steelers, the Patriots hadn't exactly played like the mistake-free, efficient machine we've come to know in the era of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Brady's having easily his worst season since becoming a starter and New England is suffering injuries on both sides of the ball -- the team has played significant stretches of the year without Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Vince Wilfork. Yet, somehow the Patriots were 6-2 and in first place in the AFC East.
Still, it appeared this could finally be the season New England entered the playoffs without being one of the favorites in the AFC. And then Brady and the offense finally showed up.
Brady carved up the Steelers all day, completing 23-of-33 passes for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Gronkowski caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Amendola added four for 122 and hit paydirt once. Rookie Aaron Dobson had his best game as a pro, hauling in five receptions for 130 yards and two scores. It was vintage Brady, exactly the sort of performance we expect of him.
Moreover, he did it against a Pittsburgh defense that had allowed just 6.4 yards per attempt and five passing touchdowns heading into the game. In 60 minutes of football, Brady increased their YPA allowed on the season by nearly a full yard. Put simply, it was a masterful game from one of the league's best. Let's take a look at a few plays that show how he did it.
The first play we'll look at takes place early in the first quarter. The Patriots have the ball on the Pittsburgh 37-yard-line and are driving. Here we see the influence of both Gronkowski and the success the Patriots have had running the ball in recent weeks while Brady has struggled.
Brady shows play action to Stevan Ridley, and the Pittsburgh linebackers bite. That frees up the middle of the field for Gronkowski. He runs a skinny post and Brady hits him for a 27-yard gain, setting up 1st-and-goal.
We'll pick up the action with 4:06 left in the first quarter. The Patriots have a 1st-and-10 at the Steelers' 34-yard-line after Devin McCourty picked off Ben Roethlisberger. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are stacked to the left of the formation. That helps Amendola get a clean release off the line. Brady first looks to the right, feels the pocket pushing in on him a bit, then comes back to the left to find a wide-open Amendola for a 34-yard touchdown.
The next play we'll look at is a 1st-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 19-yard-line. The Patriots lead 7-0 and are knocking on the door for more. Again, we see what New England can do with a healthy Gronkowski and effective play action.
New England comes out with three tight ends. Gronkowski is the single tight end to the left, and Aaron Dobson is the only wide receiver on the play, also split out to the left. It looks like a run all the way, especially on a 1st-and-10 just inside the red zone. Brady shows play action to Stevan Ridley, and that holds safety Troy Polamalu in the center of the field, something we can see beautifully right here.
He then pulls it back and finds Gronkowski being single covered by linebacker Jarvis Jones. Brady sees that 95 on Jones' back clear as day and puts the pass right on Gronkowski's back shoulder. It's an easy touchdown for the duo.
Finally, let's go ahead and fast forward to the fourth quarter. The Patriots ended up winning this game by 24 points, but it was close heading into the fourth. At this point, the Pats lead 27-14 with 14:12 left in the game. They have a 2nd-and-7 at Pittsburgh's 17-yard-line.
Dobson is split out wide to the left, and Julian Edelman is to the right. Gronkowski is lined up as a traditional tight end on the right side of the formation, while Michael Hoomanawanui is lined up as the fullback in an offset I formation, though he motions to the right and ends up running a route. However, Brady has Dobson with William Gay in single coverage. That's the matchup he wants.
Brady makes quite possibly his best throw of the game here, putting the ball in an absolutely perfect spot to Dobson's back shoulder. Gay's head is turned around, but even if he knew the pass was coming, chances are he would not have been able to break it up.
Brady was not hitting on these passes the first eight weeks of the season. A lot of that has to do with missing Gronkowski and Amendola, but he was also missing on throws that he just normally does not miss. However, the Patriots have a bye this week and a tough slate remaining. They still play the Panthers, Texans and Browns, and get the Dolphins and Ravens in the fantasy playoffs. If there's an owner in your league desperate for some quarterback help, now might be the time to take advantage of Brady's huge game last week and see if you can upgrade your team elsewhere for the playoff run.
If he is truly back to his old self, he could turn a difficult into a playoff run for his owners.
All images are screen shots of All-22 film.