This was the weekend that sorted it out. The one that showed us Tom Brady(notes) isn't competing with Michael Vick(notes) anymore. He's not just carving out an MVP application; he's competing with himself, circa 2007. He's competing with history. That's how good Tom Brady is right now … so good that we have to wonder if he's actually playing better football now than in his record-setting season from three years ago.
It might sound preposterous at first glance, when you consider Brady threw for 50 touchdowns against only eight interceptions, and engineered the second perfect regular season in NFL history. It also included a passer rating of 117.2 – a mark that is second all time only to Peyton Manning's(notes) 121.1 in 2004. Pressed against his current stats (34 touchdowns vs. four interceptions, and a passer rating hovering around 109), the numbers might not reflect Brady having the greatest season of his lifetime.
But when you step back and absorb the larger picture, there's plenty of evidence to suggest Brady is playing better now than at any other time in his NFL career. First, there is the record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception – dating back to Oct. 17. Formerly owned by Bernie Kosar at 308, Brady shattered the mark during Sunday's 34-3 win against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, and has pushed the streak to 319 and counting. That alone makes him this week's biggest winner.
Most fans can't grasp what an astronomical feat that is – that it could easily end on a ball that gets tipped at the line of scrimmage, or when a wideout falls down, or the quarterback is hit while throwing. Someone slips, or runs the wrong route, it's over. A Hail Mary interception at halftime or the end of a game, and it's over. Simply one bad decision – like the dozens and dozens we see on a weekly basis – and it's over.
Not only is Brady's streak impressive on basic merits, it's amazing that it's being re-cast in this era. Think about it: Kosar set the mark over two seasons, 1990 and 1991, which gave him the advantage of a fresh team (and a rejuvenated body) at the start of '91. It also meant opposing defenses weren't working with one continuous set of film and personnel from the same season (which they are with Brady). Kosar also set the mark in an era where the defenses were far less intricate, the coaching staffs and technology were far less specialized, and against a pool of players less athletic than those today. And while some will argue that Brady has had some interceptions dropped by defenders this season (hello, Charles Woodson(notes)), the reality is Kosar had help along the way from bumbling defenders, too.
Add it into the context of an NFL-best 13-2 record and a No. 1 seed in the AFC, and that streak alone makes Brady a viable MVP candidate. But what sets him apart from Vick – and more importantly, what sets him apart from 2007 Tom Brady – his accomplishments this season come with far more adversity. For example:
• He had better and more experienced skill position players. The 2007 Brady had the benefit of a motivated Randy Moss(notes), a healthier Wes Welker(notes), a still-dynamic Donte' Stallworth(notes), a reliable Jabar Gaffney(notes), and an experienced Benjamin Watson(notes). And lest we forget, the offensive line protecting Brady was healthy and peaking, and was arguably the best in the NFL that season.
• A dominant defense. The unit that was creating opportunities for Brady and the 2007 Patriots offense was more experienced and deeper, and arguably had comparable or better talent. It was also the fourth-best scoring defense in the league, featuring the likes of Asante Samuel(notes), Rodney Harrison(notes), Tedy Bruschi(notes), Richard Seymour(notes), Ty Warren(notes), Mike Vrabel(notes), Jarvis Green(notes), Adalius Thomas(notes), Junior Seau(notes) and Eugene Wilson(notes) … as well as current stars like Vince Wilfork(notes) and James Sanders(notes).
• Health. Brady had yet to suffer his season-ending knee injury, and he was in the height of his prime years.
Indeed, when you look at those other roster realities, it makes his 2010 hurdles (the Moss drama, the developing skill position talent, the young locker room) all the more impressive. So while the numbers aren't in the stratosphere, and the highlight clips aren't stacking up like those of Vick, one argument is over and another is just beginning. Tom Brady is the NFL's MVP. Now he's competing against his own history and carving out possibly the best season of his career.
• Ed Reed(notes)
His two interceptions against the Browns gave the Baltimore Ravens safety the 10th multi-interception game of his career. It also gives Reed six interceptions in only nine games this season. His playmaking ability will be vital in the postseason with the lack of big-play guys on the back end of that defense. Make no mistake, if they want to advance, the Ravens are going to have to create some turnovers in the secondary when they run up against the Pittsburgh Steelers or Patriots in January.
• Matt Cassel(notes)
If you have watched the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback all season, he hasn't always played quite as stellar as his numbers this season (27 touchdowns against only five interceptions). That said, there is no question Cassel is getting better under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. He looks more patient in the pocket, and he's not making nearly as many bad decisions as he was early in the season. With the development of the offensive pieces around him, Cassel will be worth every penny of his franchise quarterback contract.
• Steve Spagnuolo
Yes, he plays in a crummy division, and the Rams might be the eighth best team in the NFC. But Spagnuolo has done a great job of changing the attitude of this team in only two seasons – something that seemed unlikely as the previous regime crumbled in 2008. Spagnuolo has the front end of the defense playing better than its talent level, and he has been masterful with his handling of rookie Sam Bradford(notes). If the front office can continue to infuse this roster with talent, Spagnuolo and the Rams could control the NFC West for years to come.
• Tim Tebow(notes)
A week ago, I suggested the Denver Broncos quarterback couldn't last in the NFL if his game continued to look like something out of the University of Florida playbook. Well, Tebow looked far more like an NFL-style quarterback this week, completing a fairly effective 16 of 29 throws for 308 yards. He still ran a little too much (10 carries) for my taste, but the majority of the win over the Texans was predicated on him throwing out of the pocket. Yes, it was against a flimsy Houston defense, but it's the most encouraging game I have ever seen from him. On the flip side, Kyle Orton(notes) can't be thrilled. Dropped to third string for the remainder of the season, and likely trade bait in the offseason, he'll have to start over again somewhere else at the still-prime age of 28.
• Jay Cutler(notes)
His mechanics are still all over the place, and he's getting a lot of criticism for being a guy who relies on his arm strength and doesn't work hard to hone his game. But with the Chicago Bears winning their 11th game of the season and within reach of the No. 2 seed, all you can do is tip your cap to the guy. He accounted for four touchdowns (passing, one rushing) in Sunday's impressive win over the Jets. He's got 50 touchdown passes in his two seasons with the Bears – a better two-year total than any Bears quarterback in history. I still wonder if his mistakes will undo Chicago in the playoffs, and what his game would look like if he spent more time on his mechanics.
• Jim Schwartz
It's crazy that earlier in the season there were some grumbles about whether or not Schwartz was the right man to turn around the Detroit Lions. The fact this team has won five games without Matthew Stafford(notes), including three straight, says a lot about Schwartz's coaching ability. And there is no ignoring that six losses have come by five points or less (including the season opener against the Bears, which should have been a win if not for an overturned Calvin Johnson(notes) touchdown). This team is close to putting it all together, and should add a few more important defensive pieces in the coming offseason. There is reason for Lions fans to be optimistic. And Schwartz is one of them.
• Santana Moss(notes)
The drama around the Washington Redskins has overshadowed the fact that Moss has just kept motoring. With his 85 yards against Jacksonville, Moss has put up 1,041 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season. That's his best year since his banner 2005 debut with Washington. Oddly enough, the typically vocal Moss might have had the most quiet 1,000-yard season of any wideout this year. Maybe it's because the last three years on his restructured deal void at the end of this season and Moss becomes a free agent in 2011. Yet another piece of stellar news for that Washington offense.
• Josh Freeman(notes)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback had a career-high five touchdown passes against a feeble Seattle Seahawks defense. That gives him 23 this season – his highest single-season total since high school. His completion rate continues to inch closer to 60 percent. That would be a huge accomplishment in his first full season as a starter, after some evaluators questioned whether he could be extremely accurate in the NFL. While he still has some bouts of inconsistency, they are getting fewer and further between.
• Carson Palmer(notes)
While the Cincinnati Bengals aren't in the postseason picture, I'm not sure there was a quarterback who needed a big performance more than Carson Palmer this week. There has been a legitimate question about where Palmer's career goes after this season. At the very least, it's clear the Bengals need to prepare for his successor. But Palmer's four-touchdown effort in the win over San Diego gives some hope that there is still a season or two left in his arm. And it was nice to see him do it without Chad Ochocinco(notes) and Terrell Owens(notes), since he'll likely lose both this offseason.
• Dominic Rhodes(notes)
After Sunday's 98-yard rushing effort against Oakland, I'd make sure Rhodes got the majority of the rushing attempts the rest of the way. He runs as hard and smart as anyone else in the backfield, and it allows the Colts to take some wear and tear off of Joseph Addai(notes), while using him more in passing situations. If the Colts can run the ball like they did against Oakland consistently (or even come close to it) I think this team gets a little tougher to deal with in the postseason.
• Green Bay Packers offense
You knew this kind of bounce-back game was coming for Aaron Rodgers(notes), especially with the Packers' playoff hopes on the line. But despite his 404 passing yards and four touchdowns in the win over the Giants, the Packers weren't exactly one-dimensional. They ran the ball effectively in spots. The thing that blows my mind is how Jordy Nelson(notes) and James Jones(notes) have developed to the point that Green Bay has four starting caliber wideouts. The defense is definitely worrisome, but if the Packers get into the playoffs and Rodgers is healthy, they can score with anyone.
The loss to the Patriots was one of the worst games of the Buffalo Bills quarterback's career. It's virtually impossible to win when a quarterback turns the ball over five times (three interceptions and two lost fumbles). The overturned touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson in the first quarter hurt, and Fitzpatrick's decision making looked questionable for much of the day after that score was called back.
• Colt McCoy(notes)
You could argue his three-interception debacle against Baltimore was his first truly bad game of the season. He's still susceptible to forcing some throws, but there's no questioning that he's the franchise quarterback heading into the offseason. Add injured 2010 second-round draft pick Montario Hardesty(notes) to the backfield and give McCoy an entire offseason to polish and adjust, and the Browns are primed to make some big strides this offseason. I feel sorry for Cincinnati Bengals fans. With Cleveland poised to improve, the Bengals look like they'll be the AFC North's weak sister for the foreseeable future.
• Jeff Fisher
For a variety of reasons, the Tennessee Titans went into the tank on Fisher, losing seven of the past eight games. Part of it is the quarterback spot, but the defense hasn't been nearly as effective the second half of the season, lacking the same pass-rush bite. I still believe Fisher is a good coach, but I also wonder whether his players are hearing him. Anytime you see a talented team suffer through six-game losing streaks in back-to-back seasons, you have to wonder if Fisher's message and style have gone stale. It happens sometimes with long-tenured coaches.
• Mike Singletary
The sideline shouting matches – this time with quarterback Troy Smith(notes) – are starting to seem a tad counterproductive. Granted, Smith's interception to Oshiomogho Atogwe was reason for frustration for the coaching staff. But the problems run deeper than just the quarterback, and the bluster of the 49ers coach comes off as desperate at this point. I know some believe he deserves another year of development with this team. I don't. San Francisco needs an X's and O's coach.
• New York Giants
It feels like all of the air has been sucked out of this franchise in the back-to-back losses, especially after Sunday's thumping at the hands of the Packers. The fact that it happened after Eli Manning's(notes) much hyped talk with his teammates can't be good, either. And don't look now, but the Redskins are actually feeling good about themselves heading into their home finale against New York. They'd like nothing more than to close the season strong, while knocking a divisional rival out of the playoff hunt. Oh, and the weather promises to be terrible, too. I'm definitely wondering if Tom Coughlin survives this season.
• Norv Turner
That slow start finally came back to haunt the San Diego Chargers, and plenty of teams in the AFC playoffs are grateful for it. It has to fall on Turner, who has seen his teams stumble out of the gate every season he has been at the helm in San Diego. And that does matter when you have some aging and uncertain pieces that may not be around in 2011. If Turner wins one more game in the first month of the season, this might be the scariest AFC team in the postseason. Instead, fans are left wondering what could have been.
• Sun Life Stadium
Maybe the losers should just be the Miami Dolphins fans and not so much the stadium. Whichever it is, Sunday's loss to Detroit dropped Miami to 1-7 at home this season. It would be one thing if this team was on its way to a 2-14 season. But Miami has got a shot to finish 8-8 if New England sits starters in the season finale. To nearly lose all of your home games as a near .500 team is ridiculous. Owner Stephen Ross should seriously consider giving some kind of discount to renewing season ticket holders for 2011.
• Jack Del Rio
With Sunday's embarrassing loss to the Redskins and Rex Grossman(notes), the career regular-season record of the Jacksonville Jaguars' coach continues to dip closer to .500. With his eighth season coming to a close, he now stands at 65-62. He's notched double-digit win seasons only twice … both of those seasons representing his two playoff appearances. That's a pretty average record for a guy who will likely be one of the league's longest-tenured coaches next season. He's the rich man's Gary Kubiak.
• New York Jets defense
Well, the Jets kicked away from Devin Hester(notes) … and still had given up 38 points with 6:06 remaining in the third quarter. Chicago altered its game some to keep the pressure off Cutler, who was sacked only twice, and running back Matt Forte(notes) gouged the Jets on a few big carries. The pressure and lack of turnovers on the back end have to be a concern, particularly considering the Jets just had 45 put on them by the Patriots three weeks ago. They miss defensive tackle Kris Jenkins(notes) and safety Jim Leonhard(notes) a lot.
• Houston Texans' staff
Well, a mediocre season has fallen apart to the point of being just plain bad, and I have to believe that even if Texans owner Bob McNair shows coach Gary Kubiak some mercy, someone has to get fired from this staff. It's just not a well coached team. The fourth quarter of the loss to the Broncos, in which Denver rallied from a 23-10 deficit in the final 11 minutes, was embarrassing. This was the same Broncos team that got pounded by the Raiders only a week earlier. What does that say about the direction of the Texans?
• Pete Carroll
Here's a ridiculous stat: every single one of Seattle's losses this season has come by at least 15 points. And while you could argue that the health of Matt Hasselbeck(notes) scuttled the season, it's fair to say Carroll's addition of Charlie Whitehurst(notes) wasn't the insurance for which he hoped. Maybe not even the building block. One thing is clear: Carroll is going to have to look seriously at shuffling his coaching staff, starting with the defensive coordinator. He needs someone with more experience as a sounding board for the X's and O's.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Brian Robiskie's(notes) 29-yard trick play touchdown catch off a Mohamed Massaquoi pass. It's the second straight week the Browns wideout has caught a touchdown, marking the only two touchdowns of his career. The 2009 second-round pick has finally come to life after being virtually nonexistent for the balance of his first two years in the NFL.
Loathed: Redskins tight end Chris Cooley's(notes) drop of what would have been a 1-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter against Jacksonville. You will never see a player more wide open off of play-action … nor a worst drop. Quite possibly the worst flub of the season. It was one of multiple Cooley drops on the day.
Loved: The beard of Ryan Fitzpatrick. It has gained a cult following in Buffalo, and cracks me up every time I see him on the sideline in a knit hat and oversized jacket. He's starting to look like Walt Whitman … or maybe the guy on the Gorton's frozen fish sticks box.
Loathed: The bobbled shotgun snap by Troy Smith that led to a Rams safety against the 49ers. The offense bounced back, though Alex Smith eventually replaced Troy Smith in the second half. Ultimately, this unit still has too many inconsistencies. The 49ers' future won't be secure until a legitimate quarterback is found … and he's not on the roster.
Loved: The blocking on Kansas City's 14-yard first-quarter touchdown off a screen to Jamaal Charles(notes). Fantastic downfield blocks by center Casey Wiegmann(notes) and left tackle Branden Albert(notes) left Charles virtually untouched on the play. It's amazing how much better this offensive line looks since the new regime took over in 2009.
Loathed: The Jets' tackling on Matt Forte's 22-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. I understand it was cold, but the Jets let the Bears rack up a lot of tough yardage. Most of it was a result of bad tackling. Don't blame the crummy weather. The Jets are going to see plenty of it in the playoffs.
Loved: Brandon Pettigrew's(notes) 20-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter against Miami. With Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best(notes) and Ndamukong Suh(notes) receiving much of the hype, Pettigrew's fantastic development has been overshadowed. The Lions' last four first-round picks (Stafford, Pettigrew, Suh and Best) have shown their talent in a short amount of time.
Loathed: Realizing Sunday how many future Hall of Famers may have seen their careers end with a whimper this season. Not only Brett Favre(notes), but also Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. Not sure either diva wideout will have a market next season (Owens due to injury, and Moss due to … well, being Randy Moss).
Loved: Dwayne Bowe's(notes) 75-yard catch-and-run for a TD against Tennessee. No more calling Bowe a fluke. He's using his size more, and becoming a very technically sound player. Bowe is going to be a top-tier receiver in the system of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis for a long time.
Loathed: Watching a simple interception bounce off the hands of Lions cornerback Tye Hill(notes) and into the grasp of Dolphins wideout Davone Bess(notes) for a second-quarter touchdown. It's another prime example of awful plays by Detroit's cornerbacks this season. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson would be a nice addition to that secondary.