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Is Tom Brady — *gasp* — showing his age this season?

Never count out Touchdown Tom, but ...

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Brady has been great at football for a very long time. Was 2018 the year he became merely “good”?

Brady won 2017’s MVP award while leading the Patriots to their third AFC title in four years, and he’s got New England in position to defend that crown after an 11-5 season and the franchise’s 15th division title in 16 years. But the 41-year-old quarterback fell off his 2016 and 2017 pace in the process, making some basic mistakes in the process.

Now as he stands on the precipice of his 38th playoff game, it’s fair to wonder if he’s due to bounce back and return to his baseline as the greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history or if his standard has fallen. Are we going to see the same player who recorded a 100+ passer rating in four different playoff runs in his career? Or will the Patriots have to rise up and win around a reduced quarterback with whom time is finally beginning to keep pace?

A look at 2018 hints at the latter — but that’s no death sentence for the Pats.

Brady’s numbers declined in a season when several quarterbacks took giant leaps forward

2018 was a big year for passers. The regular season saw the most passing touchdowns in league history and the NFL’s most net yards per pass since 1962. As a result, offense ruled; the only season to see more total points scored was 2013.

But while young players like Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield were making major leaps forward and veterans like Drew Brees and Philip Rivers were establishing career highs, Brady reverted back to his career averages — which, to be fair, are:

a) extremely good, and
b) unheard of for a 41-year-old quarterback.

Here’s how his numbers fell off from that 2016-17 late-career peak to a totally fine 2018:

Tom Brady’s 2018 vs. his 2016-17 stretch

Year Record Cmp% Yds/Gm TD% Int% Y/A Adj. Y/A Rate Sk%
Year Record Cmp% Yds/Gm TD% Int% Y/A Adj. Y/A Rate Sk%
2016-2017 24-4-0 66.7 290.4 5.9 1 8 8.8 106.8 4.7
2018 11-5 65.8 272.2 5.1 1.9 7.6 7.8 97.7 3.6

Brady threw for fewer yards, fewer touchdown passes, and more interceptions in 2018 than he had his previous two years. His quarterback rating dropped by nearly 10 points, despite an offensive line that kept him upright more often.

Those aren’t especially precipitous drops when you consider he was more efficient and accurate this season that he has been, on average, over the course of his 19-year career. But compared to the rest of the league’s rising tide of QB play, it looks much worse.

Tom Brady’s NFL ranks, 2017 vs. 2018

Category 2017 rank 2018 rank
Category 2017 rank 2018 rank
Passing yards per game 1 11
Touchdown rate 5 14
Interception rate 3 13
Adj. yards per attempt 4 11
QB rating 3 12

As the rest of the league got better, Brady regressed. That bled through onto the field, where the often-steady pro suffered through an inconsistent season. He had nine games with a passer rating higher than 100 and five at 90 or lower. Between 2013 and 2017, Brady had four games with multiple interceptions. He nearly matched that in 2018 alone after throwing two or more picks in three contests.

No one game illustrated Brady’s 2018 slump more than the Patriots’ 17-10 loss against Pittsburgh in Week 15. The veteran Steeler-killer’s only touchdown of that game came thanks to completely blown coverage on wideout Chris Hogan. When Brady earned multiple chances to pull off a fourth-quarter comeback and either escape with a win or push the game to overtime, he came away with zero points.

Brady’s struggles were most apparent on this interception against the Steelers, which certainly looks like an aging player trying to make a throw he no longer has the arm for late in a vital road game against a team in the playoff race.

“I was just trying to flick it out of bounds,” Brady told reporters after the game. “I didn’t want to take the sack. Shouldn’t happen.”

But it did happen, and it happened to a quarterback whose career was built on avoiding those kinds of backbreaking mistakes. So should the Patriots be worried?

At least a little.

Brady struggles can be at least partially attributed to a lack of top targets

One of New England’s biggest flaws in a 2-2 start was a lack of upper-tier receivers. Julian Edelman served a four-game PED suspension to start the season, leaving Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan, and Cordarrelle Patterson as the team’s top three wide receivers. While Rob Gronkowski was around to shoulder some of the burden, a steady diet of double teams severely limited his impact after a 123-yard performance in Week 1.

Edelman’s return and the addition of Josh Gordon via trade helped spark an obvious improvement in the Patriots passing game. Brady averaged just under 230 passing yards per game and a 94.0 passer rating with Edelman sidelined. Those numbers jumped to 286 yards and a 98.8 rating over the team’s final 12 games.

Those stats were better, but they weren’t in line with Brady’s performance from 2016 or 2017. And now he’ll head into the postseason without the services of one of the players who made those improvements possible.

Gordon was suspended indefinitely by the NFL on Dec. 20 after breaking the terms of his conditional reinstatement, robbing Brady of a dynamic deep threat for the final two weeks of the regular season and the playoffs. Gordon didn’t make a massive difference in his 11 games as a Patriot, but he was a valued piece of the New England offense; his stat line with the club, projected out to a 16-game season, would work out to a 58-catch, 1,047-yard campaign.

More importantly, his ability to draw defensive attention over the top and pull safeties away from the line of scrimmage boosted both the passing offense and their running game. In 11 games with Gordon in the lineup, Brady averaged 8.1 yards per pass. In the five games without him, that number fell to 6.5

Overcoming Gordon’s departure will force the Patriots to rely on an old standby in Gronkowski, but the four-time All-Pro tight end hasn’t looked like himself in 2018 either. Injuries limited Gronkowski to 11 starts this fall, and he only averaged 3.6 catches per game — though he was used sparingly toward the end of the season in games against the Jets and Bills as New England prepped for the playoffs. His three touchdowns tied a career low, which came back in 2016 when he was limited to just six starts.

A league suspension has already taken away Brady’s biggest field-stretching presence along the sideline. Injuries threaten to limit Gronkowski, his field-stretching presence up the seam as well.

Brady’s revival will have to come from a less-than ideal set of receivers. Only Julian Edelman and pass-catching tailback James White have played up to expectations this season, though Cordarrelle Patterson has been a useful Swiss Army Knife for the club, Chris Hogan’s shown flashes, and Phillip Dorsett is a trusted, if underused, piece of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ puzzle.

That’s the group Brady will have to push to its limits in order to out-score the rest of the AFC en route to his fourth Super Bowl in five years. The good news for the Patriots is he’s done more with less in the past. The bad news is time may finally be catching up to him — and his 2018 numbers suggest it’s closer than ever to the legendary quarterback.