FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Since he became a starter in 2001, quarterback Tom Brady has been the Mariano Rivera of NFL closers. Put the ball in his hands and ask him to preserve the win, he'd deliver.
Brady entered the 2009 season with a 78-4 career record as a starter when the Patriots led at halftime. Of late, however, the closer is having trouble finding the plate in late-game situations. He has four losses this season when the Patriots held a halftime lead.
So how does Brady himself assess his performance through 12 games?
"I hate to talk about myself because it's not about what I do, it's about what we need to do," he said. "Obviously, I need to play better. When you're 7-5, you don't have a lot of good feelings about much, especially with some of the teams that I've been on and the kind of expectations that we have. I have to play my best football down the stretch."
Brady's physical condition makes the challenge that much more difficult. He's hurting in a big way.
He might have told reporters on Friday that he was fine, and not to worry about him, but what is he supposed to say? What he was probably thinking was: "Actually, the tip of my finger is black and blue, my ribs are killing me, I'm exhausted, and I've taken more big hits this year than I can remember."
Not many quarterbacks feel great entering Week 14, although Brady had taken pride in not having missed a practice since the start of training camp, a streak that was broken Wednesday and Thursday of this week. At first, it appeared as if the absences might have been personal after the birth of his son Tuesday, but now it's clear that injuries were a part of it.
Brady is officially "questionable" for Sunday's game against the Panthers, although few expect he won't play. His health concerns -- specifically his ribs after absorbing a crunching blow on a 58-yard touchdown pass Sunday in Miami -- are the latest chapter in what has been a challenging comeback season.
All eyes were on his surgically repaired left knee early on, and there were some initial struggles. Yet by the team's bye weekend in early November, with the offense putting up big-time points, the knee was an afterthought to most. It was generally accepted that he was back.
His recent dip, which included game-changing interceptions in New Orleans and Miami, has some reconsidering how far back he truly is. Yes, he is second in the NFL in passing yards (3,638), but he also seems to have misfired on crucial throws more than he has in the past -- which has cost the Patriots.
Is Brady the same quarterback he was pre-injury?
"You hear some people say he isn't, but I think he's pretty darn close," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer. "I don't see a big difference. I thought the talk early in the season about his fundamentals was ridiculous. I thought he was fine early on; it was just a matter of trying to get the timing down offensively. Then he goes for five 300-yard games and everyone says 'He's back.' I still thought he was the same; it was just a matter of getting their timing and continuity, and it helped they didn't face a very good pass defense.
"Now the last few weeks, he hasn't been so sharp. New Orleans just kicked the snot out of him. But against Miami, he was 15 of 16 at one point, so you can't say he was bad in the game. They just made a couple of mistakes; I'm still not sure if Randy [Moss] was supposed to go inside on the fade, there was a third-down play late in the game where he forced it to [Wes] Welker, and there was a go route to [Sam] Aiken that he missed.
"But the point to me is that their margin for error is less. Now, with a couple mistakes, it makes it a lot worse. So when you look at Brady specifically, he is still one of the great players in the league and is still having a top-seven quarterback year."
Others aren't so quick to agree with Dilfer.
"He's getting a lot more contact in the pocket. He's maybe not as aggressive to step into those throws," Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson told The Associated Press. "From the games I have seen on TV, throws that have become typical of him, he's missing. He's not hitting them every time like you've grown to expect of him."
"I don't necessarily see anything different other than the talent around him," New York Jets cornerback Lito Sheppard told AP. "They have basically two guys in the passing game that gets the ball, where before it was four or five guys and they didn't have that go-to guy. I think that has kind of made them as a team more predictable. The defense helped him out a lot in the past. I think the lack of big plays on the defense has been the biggest difference in that team right now."
As for Brady losing his closing touch, the Patriots held halftime leads over the Jets (9-3), Broncos (17-7), Colts (24-14) and Dolphins (14-10) before letting them slip away.
Entering the fourth quarter of the NFL season, battered Brady has his sights set on regaining his Rivera-like form.
"When you're 7-5, you're obviously not doing everything right," he said. "If you continue to do it, you're going to get a lot of the same, which is pretty average. I always think there's only one way to go at it, which is to put more into it. Everybody collectively comes together to put whatever you have left into it."