FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At 4:13 p.m. Thursday, the New England Patriots tweeted news that jolted their loyal worshipers more than a double shot of espresso in their Dunkin' Donuts coffee:
Quarterback Tom Brady, with an ailing right hand, didn't participate in practice.
Three days before the AFC Championship Game, mind you.
The Patriots have a mini-crisis, and they'll have no one to blame but themselves if this turns into the worst-case scenario -- if Brady struggles and the defending Super Bowl champions lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.
If that's how it plays out, the Patriots will be subjected to an offseason of massive criticism, and it would be justified because they sold off the NFL's best insurance policy -- Jimmy Garoppolo -- for 50 cents on the dollar.
Coach Bill Belichick might be the smartest football guy in the history of the sport, but he erred in trading Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick. Forget about the long-term implications; let's focus on the now.
In Super Bowl-or-bust mode, always the case in these parts, Belichick decided to go Brady-or-bust by shipping out Garoppolo in a highly controversial trade. Brady has been terrific this season -- he probably will be named the league's MVP for the third time in his illustrious career -- but he's 40 years old and football is a contact sport.
Guys get hurt, and Brady injured his famous right hand while colliding with a teammate in practice on Wednesday. There's no way he will sit out Sunday, but if he suddenly starts throwing like Blake Bortles, everyone will know he's not right. Brady's hand will get more TV time than Curt Schilling's right ankle/bloody sock got in the 2004 postseason.
Worse, what if Brady aggravates the injury and can't finish the game?
Belichick will have no choice but to turn to Brian Hoyer, whose only postseason experience was a disaster. Starting for the Houston Texans in 2015, he threw four interceptions and passed for 136 yards in a 30-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
That would be the Patriots' worst nightmare, and it would shine a harsh light on the Garoppolo trade and the story behind it. ESPN the Magazine recently reported that Belichick wasn't on board with it, and that he was "furious and demoralized" when the deal went down at the trading deadline. The story reported that owner Robert Kraft, perhaps influenced by Brady, ordered the trade. Kraft, in an interview with The MMQB.com, told a conflicting version, saying Belichick was the driving force behind it.
Someone isn't telling the truth.
The Patriots should've kept Garoppolo, who has blossomed into a star, even though it would've meant losing him after the season as a free agent. A third-round compensatory pick in 2019 isn't as good as a second-round pick in 2018, but the risk-reward would've justified the lower compensation.
New England is in the business of winning now, and they left themselves vulnerable. It's ironic, because they've been two steps ahead of the competition for nearly two decades, winning five Super Bowls. This season, they made one move too many, creating their current predicament.
On Thursday, players clammed up, refusing to acknowledge Brady's injury. Before the injury report was released, safety Devin McCourty was asked how Brady looked in practice.
"Tom looks excellent every day," he said. "[He's] one of the best-looking people I've ever met."
They can joke about it now. If Brady isn't Brady and the Patriots fall one game short of the Super Bowl, the offseason fallout could get ugly.