Brady toughs it out

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The story that won't die -- Randy Moss's effort -- is overshadowing one that isn't receiving enough attention: Tom Brady's toughness and leadership while in significant pain.

Brady missed another practice Wednesday (he was back on the field Thursday) after being held out of two others last week. It had been unclear whether his absence last week was related to the Tuesday birth of his son, but now it's known it wasn't.

Although he would never admit it publicly, Brady must be hurting in a big way. He wore an elastic bandage over his right ring finger Wednesday and is receiving ongoing treatment for a rib injury sustained Dec. 6 in Miami.

That makes what unfolded Sunday at Gillette Stadium in the Patriots' 20-10 victory over the Panthers all the more impressive, and warrants a midweek pause to acknowledge the exemplary toughness the greatest quarterback in Patriots history is showing on the field and the sidelines.

It was Brady's emotion on the bench Sunday that stood out as much as the final statistical line (19-of-32 for 192 yards with one touchdown and one interception). One moment in particular caught the eye, coming after the team's 96-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, when some life finally had been injected into the Patriots and the home crowd.

A peek through binoculars revealed Brady going up and down the sideline, firing up his offensive teammates -- from the linemen, to the tight ends, receivers and running backs -- before taking a seat next to gutsy receiver Wes Welker.

Gillette Stadium finally had come to life, and Brady yelled something in excitement to Welker. Welker turned to Brady and roared back at him with emotion overflowing. Brady yelled back. Welker then roared again.

It was a snapshot of two tough but battered football players summoning everything they had to keep afloat a season that appeared to be hanging in the balance at times Sunday.

Given the ailments Brady is battling, it is impressive that he played at a high level while also serving as the primary sideline motivator. He was part quarterback, part emotional sparkplug, a sideline madman making purposeful stops to each position group throughout the afternoon.

It's part of what makes him Brady.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said earlier this week that it wasn't until game time that the team knew Brady would be able to play. It was a rare injury acknowledgement from Belichick, one that could have been interpreted as the coach praising Brady's toughness, as if to say, "If you only knew what he was going through, you'd truly appreciate the effort."

In some ways, Brady's current situation might be similar to what Steve McNair endured when he willed the Titans into the 2002 playoffs despite not being able to practice in December because of injured ribs and turf toe. McNair was rightfully praised for his toughness that season.

A quarterback needs to practice to be sharp in games, and it showed Sunday with Brady. He was off early. Belichick often talks about how the performance in practice sets the tone for the game, but what type of tone can be set when the starting quarterback isn't there?

Brady takes pride in being there, and it was clear from the early days of training camp that he was diving into the 2009 season with a purpose, his appreciation for football perhaps at an all-time high after his serious knee injury knocked him out of 2008. Unlike past years, when he was given some practices off or had himself on a limited throwing count, Brady didn't miss a single session and joked that he was "reversing the trend" at age 32.

"I want to be out here with my teammates; I'd rather be out here practicing and getting better," he said during camp.

The words still apply today.

Brady missing three practices over the past seven days -- the first practices he's missed all year -- is a rather strong indication that he must be in significant pain. The Patriots are attempting to make a playoff push, and their quarterback is battered and beaten but, thankfully for them, as resilient as ever.

It's something to appreciate, for sure.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.