SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the rain came down, turning the field into green soot and the football into a brick, we saw two different, highly atypical versions of Tom Brady.
At different points in the game, Brady was simply off. Footballs sailed high (insert your Deflategate joke here) in ways we don't normally see. The weather was likely the main culprit, for sure. It was still just odd to see.
Read that last line again. Brady was slippery and evasive, a conjurer, a scamperer.
"He's Brady Vick," joked Julian Edelman after the game, when asked about Brady's mobility.
The end result of these two Bradys was that Brady likely has—and has earned—a lead in the MVP race. But that race is tightening. It is tightening quickly.
The main takeaway from the New England Patriots' 30-17 victory over San Francisco at Levi's Stadium was that even when Brady isn't Brady, he finds a way to be Brady. He still gets the job done, even if he sometimes has to do it in a non-Brady-like way. Like scampering.
It was easy to predict a Patriots victory. The 49ers are putrid. The only thing this team has going for it is Colin Kaepernick, and if Kaepernick were smart, he'd find the nearest escape pod and abandon this ship, this warp-core-breached franchise.
In some ways, Kaepernick looks better than he ever has. He was far from perfect, and some of his passes fluttered and quivered so much they quacked and were hit by shotgun pellets, but he has almost no weapons, and his coach was outcoached, and his front office has put little talent on the field.
Chip Kelly is now 7-18 in his last two seasons after starting 20-12 in his first two. See you with the Texas Longhorns, Chip.
No, the game itself was the least interesting part. The most fascinating part of the story was seeing if Brady would stay ahead of his pursuers in the MVP race crown, and he did...barely.
It's impossible not to look at the Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott, after he carved up the best defense in football in Dallas' 27-17 defeat of the Baltimore Ravens, and not think of him as right behind Brady—or even possibly ahead of him.
Russell Wilson is also close. In many ways, he continues to be the most underappreciated MVP candidate in many years. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is in the mix. Derek Carr is. There's also Matt Ryan, but he's far behind the others.
The point is, the race is tighter than usual this late in the year. We usually have a clear picture by now, but not this season.
The argument against Brady is the Patriots went 3-1 without him, and that's true. It's also clear, however, the Patriots have elevated their play since his return. They did lose to Seattle, but a lot of teams lose to Seattle.
Brady against the 49ers threw for four touchdowns. He has 16 touchdown passes this season and just one interception. Like Wilson, Brady simply doesn't make a lot of mistakes.
What also makes Brady formidable is his ability to switch gears, to go from one mode to another. After the team went nearly two full quarters without scoring, Brady seemed to have had enough of the drought. He threw two quick touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Make that 4 TDs and a 27-10 lead #NEvsSF https://t.co/vlqyhzAz4Y11/20/2016, 11:58:13 PM
The 49ers spent all week practicing for the way Brady hits quick passes between the hashes. Yet preparing for Brady's quick throws is different from stopping them.
"He was getting the ball off real fast," said 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks. "And..."
Then Brooks paused, shrugging his shoulders.
As in: What the hell are we supposed to do? That's Tom Brady.
Brady of course would rather punch himself in the gonads than talk about the MVP race. Few players want to talk about the race, but the Patriots especially don't discuss such things. Bill Belichick would drop his players in a vat of acid if they did.
Brady is as methodical and efficient in his pressers as he is on the field. That's not a criticism. That's a compliment.
Janie McCauley @JanieMcCAP
Rainbow caps Tom Brady's triumphant Bay Area return, 30-17 Pats win. https://t.co/UAVWPhq7o811/21/2016, 12:31:24 AM
At the end of the game, a giant rainbow appeared near the stadium. There wasn't a pot of gold at the end of it, but rather a continuation of what could be another MVP season for Brady.
But it's going to be close. Really close. It could be closer than we've seen in a long time.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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