It's only the fourth week of the season, but the Patriots may be facing their most important game of the year.
A win against the Ravens would once again cement the team's place among the elite in the NFL. A loss would consign them to the tier of "good but not great" teams and prove a serious blow to the Pats' championship hopes.
In short, the Patriots must win on Sunday. What's more, they need to do it through the air.
Tom Brady continues to be the most scrutinized man in the NFL. Some think he has become trigger-shy, others believe his physical ailments (sore shoulder, knee) continue to hound him, and still more ask if the superstar's days are numbered.
Still, this is a Brady team. He is its focal point, and it has been designed around him.
To take the ball out of his hands and into those of a running back, as some have suggested, would be giving up the season.
To be sure, the Patriots have some talented running backs, but these players are not the grinding, pound-it-out backs that running teams rely upon.
Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney are much more renowned for their speed and elusiveness than their power running.
Sammy Morris has shown some toughness, but substantial injuries in the last few years mean the team's offense cannot solely be based on him.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, though exhibiting flashes of promise, has not yet proved he can provide consistent production.
What's more, should the team fall behind in a game (as happens to all teams in the NFL), it would be difficult to rally back with a primarily running-based attack.
The point is, this is not a "Brett Favre with the Vikings" scenario—this team will live and die based on Brady's performance.
Brady must be allowed to once again find his rhythm. Merely hiding him from a defense will do little to restore his confidence (or his mechanics, if his physical ailments are indeed behind his struggles).
True, Brady has had difficulty establishing a rapport with his new receivers, but not passing the ball will hardly remedy that fact.
This will be a difficult week to get on track, but, should Brady return to form against a tough defense, many questions about this team will be answered.
If not, Pats fans may be facing a long, lost season.
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