Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 349d

Tom Brady's opening quarter of season rivals his best ever

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are in an uncharacteristic spot with their 2-2 record, and it might be even worse if not for quarterback Tom Brady.

At 40 years old, Brady looks like the same old Brady.

It's why Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, even after his team held off a furious fourth-quarter comeback to post a 33-30 victory over Brady and the Patriots on Sunday, said, "Tom Brady is a measuring stick for all quarterbacks."

As for measuring Brady's first four starts to other years of his career, his 2017 body of work stacks up favorably. Best ever? That might be a stretch, but it's easily in the top five, and maybe higher.

Brady enters Thursday's road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers having completed 103 of 155 passes for 1,399 yards, with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating is 116.6.

"It's hard to separate the last [four] weeks from the last umpteen years," Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. "His status in this league is as high as you can get. ... When his name is mentioned all we can think of is superlatives."

Brady's current four-game stretch, which included him throwing three touchdowns in the first quarter (vs. the Saints in Week 2) for the first time in his career and leading his 52nd career comeback from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie the following week against the Texans, is statistically rivaled only by what unfolded in 2007, 2015 and 2016.

In '07, when Brady was throwing to receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth and some wondered if the Patriots were running up the score, Brady was completing almost 80 percent of his passes at the quarter mark. He was 95-of-120 for 1,118 yards, with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating was 134.7, which hasn't been duplicated.

But he came close in 2016.

Having missed the first four games of the season while serving an NFL suspension as part of Deflategate, Brady showed no ill effects from the time off. In his first four starts, he was 98-of-134 for 1,319 yards (73.1 percent), with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. Passer rating: 133.9.

Only 2015 was close to being in the same category, with Brady going 116-of-160 for 1,387 yards, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 121.5.

As for this year, part of what puts Brady's work in the discussion of his best opening quarters of a season is the duress he's been under consistently. He's never been sacked more (13) and hit more (26) than before. Part of that is holding the ball longer to allow vertical routes to develop (10.32 average air yards per attempt), but that isn't the only reason.

"They're not protecting him probably as well as they have in the past," Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "But he still has great presence. He's playing really good football right now ... throwing for big numbers."

Brady has two games in which he completed 30 or more passes (vs. Saints and Panthers). He didn't have a single game with 30 or more completions in the first quarter of the 2007 season, or his first four starts in 2016.

He's also the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 1,000 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions through his team's first four games twice in his career, having accomplished the feat in 2015 as well.

That's not to say Brady hasn't flirted with trouble at times or had stretches in which his accuracy wasn't pinpoint, such as this past Sunday against Carolina. But overall, Brady has been close to as good as he's ever been, 40 years old be damned.

"He's 175 years old and still moving like he's 22," Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He gets younger; he has like the Benjamin Button disease. It's like the older he gets, the better he gets."

The first four games are the latest example.

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