Over the past month, as a limping Patriots offense averaged just 18 points, NFL pundits have started positing the once unfathomable.
Is Tom Brady no longer elite?
That's not the question, though.
The real question after New England’s 28-22 loss Sunday to Houston dropped the Patriots to 10-2 after an 8-0 start is this: Is Brady even an average quarterback?
And the bigger question, particularly for New England fans, is: Could he actually be a liability in the playoffs for the once-Super Bowl favorites?
With a flashy, young crop of quarterbacks excelling, it's easy to write off Brady as a blast from the past, as if his decline has been steady and expected. But his fall is precipitous. Anvils have better hang time.
Brady finished sixth in Total QBR last season. In 2017, third. The year prior, second. And the 10 years before that? Fifth, third, second, fourth, first, fifth, fifth, hurt, first, second.
In 2019, Brady's QBR ranks 17th in the NFL, just behind Ryan Tannehill and just ahead of Jameis Winston, Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones. In other words, below average.
Of course, New England's offense has been an infirmary ward for much of the season, Brady's receiving core a rotating cast of bit players. Aside from mainstay Julian Edelman (915 yards receiving), who has managed to stay relatively healthy for the first time in years, no Patriots wide receiver has more than 347 yards receiving.
Josh Gordon was a flame-out and Antonio Brown took a flame-thrower to the NFL. New acquisition Mohamed Sanu is just getting to know Brady. Phillip Dorsett, acquired three years ago from the Colts in a deal for quarterback Jacoby Brissett, is a bust. N'keal Harry, the Patriots' first-round pick out of Arizona State whom many expected to make an instant impact in his return from an ankle injury, has all of four catches on nine targets in his first three games. The Patriots have turned to undrafted free agent Jakobi Meyers, who has 299 yards on 22 catches.
And Rob Gronkowski is having the time of his life as a television star and pitchman, about as far from a football field as one can imagine.
Brady defended his teammates in a radio interview on Monday after the offense sputtered once more against the Texans.
"Guys are trying. I have no problem (with the effort),” Brady said. “I love playing with Phillip Dorsett. I love playing with N'Keal. N'Keal is working his tail off. He hasn't had a lot of opportunity out there. He's learning as he's going. To expect someone to go out in their third game of the year, and be perfect, I think that's unrealistic for anyone. I love what N'Keal is bringing. We're gaining confidence every week.”
But there were days, not all that long ago, when New England could seemingly sign a plumber off the street and turn him into a productive pass-catcher. Such was the magic of Bill Belichick and Brady.
What if the magic is over? And what does that mean for the Patriots in the playoffs? New England still has the inside track to a top-two seed in the AFC. It still boasts one of the best defenses in the NFL. Belichick is still Belichick.
But if Brady is no longer the Brady of old, The Alchemist, able to spin gold out of yarn, the Patriots are doomed. The competition is too good, too young and too fresh.
MVP favorite Lamar Jackson and the Ravens disposed of the 49ers in a potential Super Bowl matchup Sunday and moved into the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Ravens are now betting favorites to win the whole thing.
AFC East rival Buffalo is 9-3 after an impressive Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys, and Houston’s win over the Patriots improved it to 8-4, tied with the Chiefs. That's four teams closing in on the Pats, all with quarterbacks drafted in either 2017 or 2018. Jackson and Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. All younger, faster and shiftier than Brady, age 42, in his 20th season. All but Allen ranked in the league’s top six in QBR.
As they’ve shown over the past month in losses to Jackson and Baltimore and Watson and Houston, the Patriots have lacked the firepower to keep up. In January, they’re going to need a bit of Brady’s magic to tangle with the tots.
What if it’s gone?
What if Brady is no longer elite?
Worse, what if he is no longer average?