Brady has received a lot of plaudits from various factions of the media this season. Some considered him an MVP finalist. Others suggested he deserved to be the winner. The argument for Brady is very easy to make.
Before the season even began, he had lost the majority of his weapons from last season. Tight end Aaron Hernandez was released before he landed in prison. Rob Gronkowski suffered through the offseason with injury before tearing his ACL when he eventually got on the field during the regular season.
Brady entered the season without established starters to catch his passes. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce made the 53-man roster along with veteran free-agent addition Danny Amendola and carryover Julian Edelman.
Edelman and Amendola were supposed to be the starters. However, Amendola missed four regular season games and never really became the player the franchise hoped for. Edelman surpassed expectations, but his play could be diminished by the fact that nobody made a strong push to sign him when he was a free agent.
Simple logic suggested that Brady was making the players around him better. Simple logic suggested that the rookie receivers weren't on the same page as him whenever anything went wrong; that any of Edelman's success was only a result of Brady's ability to expose the defense.
Because the Patriots enjoyed a lot of team success as AFC East champions and a second seed for the playoffs, any simple logic was in Brady's favour.
Yet, when you took a closer look at Brady's performances on the field each Sunday, there was very little evidence to suggest that he was one of the better quarterbacks in the league. There was very little evidence to suggest that he was overcoming the Patriots' supposed lack of weapons and their worsening offensive line.
In fact, the opposite became apparent.
While the Patriots didn't have recognizable names catching passes for their quarterback, they did have receivers who were executing on the field. There were drops and mistakes, but not dramatically more than any other group of receivers in the NFL.
Furthermore, the offense was able to rely on a very strong running game and the best coaching staff in the NFL. The execution of the offense as a whole wasn't close to being one of the worst in the league.
The above chart tracks every throw from Brady for the first 15 games of the regular season. It's not a reflection of completions and incompletions, but rather a reflection of passes that were deemed accurate or inaccurate. The chart is adjusted to not include any throws that were potential wide receiver-quarterback miscommunications.
As the chart shows, Brady wasn't very accurate at all this season. His ability to throw the ball down the field has never been overly impressive, but at this point in his career his inaccuracy is close to being awful.
Many of those deep passes weren't difficult throws, either. Often he missed open receivers who had created up to five yards of separation behind the defense.
The Patriots offense is not built on throwing the ball downfield. Instead, most of Brady's attempts came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage with a large percentage arriving behind the line of scrimmage. Even when he was throwing the ball underneath, Brady was forcing his receivers to make difficult receptions.
There was a time when Brady would routinely put the ball through tight windows over the middle of the field or hit receivers in stride with seemingly unnatural consistency. Now, at the age of 36, Brady can still fit the ball through tight windows and hit receivers in stride, but with dramatically less consistency.
It's no coincidence that the Patriots' most impressive displays this season came when the offense focused on running the ball.
Brady was the main reason why they were better off running the ball. Although it would be convenient to blame Brady's receivers because they aren't big names, it would contradict what we saw on the field during the season, and especially in the AFC Championship game.
This play came very early on against the Denver Broncos. It was 3rd-and-3 at the Patriots 27-yard line. The two key receivers to watch are Danny Amendola, highlighted to the top of the screen, and Matthew Slater, highlighted at the bottom of the screen.
Before his poor accuracy comes into play, Brady makes a bad decision. From the beginning of the play, Brady never takes his eyes off of Slater to the bottom of the screen. Slater eventually comes free, but the throw to him is much more difficult than a throw to Amendola underneath.
Amendola is wide open and would have had an easy route to a first down if Brady had thrown the ball in front of him. The only defender who could have got to Amendola was the middle linebacker, but he was blocked off by Edelman running infield from the slot.
Instead of throwing the ball to Amendola, Brady looks for Slater running down the seam. Brady saw him release inside of the defensive back and Slater does get a step on the defender down the field. If his quarterback pushes the ball down the seam, then there is a good chance that Slater can come away with a big reception.
However, Brady's pass floats to the sideline and actually ends up in a better spot for the defender than the receiver. Fortunately for Brady, Slater recognizes the flight of the ball very early in his route. He is able to adjust and extend over the defensive back to give himself an opportunity to make a very difficult catch.
Slater doesn't make the reception, but his initial adjustment prevents the defender from making an interception.
Later in the first quarter, we got another glimpse of Brady's inability to find receivers down the field. This time, the receiver was wide open and the throw wasn't difficult by NFL standards.
The Patriots run a very well designed play action on 1st-and-10. Brady settles in the pocket and has plenty of space to throw unopposed. The play action not only drew the pass rush away from the quarterback, but it also pulled the secondary out of position.
Edelman lined up in the right slot, but he ran across the field when the ball was snapped. The cornerback to that side was drawn too far forward to stop him from getting past him, while the safety was to the other side of the field. Edelman was five yards away from the closest defensive back when Brady began his throwing motion.
He was running into space also, so his quarterback could have lofted the ball down the sideline to allow him to run underneath it. Instead, Brady put a relatively low trajectory on the ball and tried to hit his receiver in stride. Brady overshot Edelman so that his receiver couldn't even make a diving attempt at the catch.
Before the end of the first half, Brady also missed Austin Collie deep down the sideline when he had found a few yards behind the defense. The miss likely cost the Patriots three points and could potentially have cost them seven.
At that stage of the game, the Patriots were losing 13-3. Any score would have been important for momentum moving into the second half.
Instead, the Broncos stretched their lead out with a touchdown early in the third quarter. The Patriots eventually found themselves down 23-3 early in the fourth quarter. Brady would complete a touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with 9:30 remaining, but before that point we saw another flaw in his game that is atypical of his reputation.
Brady is seen as a pocket general. A player who commands his offense perfectly, surveys the field with ease and stands tall under pressure to find his receivers when they need him to. On 1st-and-10 in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots needed to score quickly, Brady made a play that made him look very old.
The Patriots run a play action that is very similar to the one from the missed deep pass to Edelman. However, the Broncos blitz from that side of the field this time so they have two free rushers coming for Brady. The veteran quarterback turns before they get to him, though.
Brady has more than enough time to set himself and deliver a pass to his left here. The only question is if he had a receiver open.
Edelman is running an in route into space. He would have had a first down if Brady had led him infield. If he had thrown him just a catchable pass, he would have been able to set up a 2nd-and-short situation on the next play. Instead, Brady flips the ball into the ground so he can spin away from the incoming sack.
If Brady had stood tall and strong in the pocket, he would have had an easy completion for a first down here. By fading backwards and flipping the ball away with his arm, he didn't punish the coverage on the back end.
This is the type of play an old quarterback makes because he is trying to protect his body. Maybe it's a good career decision, but it's not a good decision when your team needs three touchdowns in one quarter and every single second counts.
Understanding that every single second counts is important for Brady now. That's because this may be the beginning of the end.
Undoubtedly he has been a great quarterback for over a decade, but very few players can sustain a high level of play past the age of 35. Brady will be 37 years of age before the start of next season. In spite of Peyton Manning's success and the sporadic stretches of good play from Brett Favre late in his career, the prospects of Brady getting better next season aren't good.
Can the Patriots still win with him? Evidently they can because of Bill Belichick's ability to get the most out of the pieces around him on both sides of the ball.
The question isn't about whether the Patriots can continue to win with Brady. The question is about how much can they expect from him moving forward. Nobody can play forever. Not even surefire Hall of Fame quarterbacks.