It's all on Brady's shoulders

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At this time of year, when the hits start adding up on quarterback Tom Brady and the strain from throwing 576 passes builds, a day off can help. He got one Wednesday and another one Thursday, according to Adam Schefter, to rest an aching left shoulder.

No cause for alarm, but considering how much Brady wants to practice and invests in the weekly process of preparing for the next opponent, it does register as more than a passing note.

So, too, does the image of what some saw following Saturday's victory over the Miami Dolphins when Brady dressed slowly at his locker and seemed to be extremely cautious with his non-throwing left shoulder. One report, from Comcast SportsNet, indicated that Brady had X-rays after the game to check for a separation and was told he was "all set."

Officially, the Patriots said Brady missed practice Wednesday for non-injury related reasons, and it's not the first time that's been the case late in the season. It's probably just the Patriots managing their most important asset, and Rich Gannon, the former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst, understands why.

Gannon lived the life of the NFL quarterback and he, as well as anyone, has a feel for what quarterbacks like Brady go through at this time of year. In-game statisticians have registered 65 quarterback hits on Brady -- that doesn't include running plays -- and all it takes is for one to alter the complexion of a quarterback's season.

"The word 'luck' probably isn't the right one, but crazy things can happen," said Gannon, who has provided analysis on CBS broadcasts of two Patriots games this season -- versus the Bills on Sept. 25 and versus the Colts on Dec. 4. "I remember one year, I threw an interception and on the return someone hit me and I landed on my hip. For five weeks, I spent hours and hours in the training room and then all of a sudden your back is bothering you and your calf is bothering you."

It looked like something similar had happened on one of Brady's quarterback sneaks Saturday against the Dolphins -- with his left shoulder taking the brunt of the blow. It also could have happened on a fourth-quarter play when he scrambled and fell hard on the shoulder in a game where he was hit behind the line of scrimmage eight times, tying a season high. But Brady's absence from Wednesday's practice was deemed "non-injury related" on the official participation report. Brady also went through his regular Wednesday news conference, as well as a sitdown interview with ESPN's Chris Berman.

If he was hurting, he hid it well. He said his focus was strictly on the Bills, who defeated the Patriots in the third week of the season when Brady threw four interceptions (two on tipped passes).

That seems like a lifetime ago, with the Patriots currently on a seven-game winning streak, a run in which Brady has been intercepted just once. The reduction in turnovers has been a main reason for the team's success, and when Gannon was in town for the Colts game a few weeks ago, he left with an even greater appreciation for what Brady has accomplished this season as he's now on the cusp of eclipsing the 5,000-yard mark (he has 4,897 entering the regular-season finale).

"We're watching practice that Friday and seeing who's lining up where, and I'm looking at the lineup and see Nick McDonald taking all the reps at center. You ask, 'What's the deal here?' Next thing you know, he's starting his first-ever game, and if you didn't know, you'd think it was one of the regulars in there," Gannon said.

"A big part of that is Brady. He's the maestro, the guy who makes it all go with his ability to change protections and get them in the right plays, the right runs, and handle the blitzes. He's just so adept at that."

That's essentially what Gannon relays to inquisitive owners and general managers across the NFL when he's on the road calling games. He tells them to look to New England, Green Bay, New Orleans and Indianapolis (when Peyton Manning is playing), and if they don't have a quarterback who can handle those type of responsibilities to give the offense flexibility at the line of scrimmage, they're in trouble.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has annually lauded Brady's work in that area.

"He gets a lot of things thrown at him coverage-wise and pressure, and things like that," Belichick said Wednesday, calling Brady one of the team's hardest-working players. "He does a good job of managing the game, he's well prepared, and he's able to perform well under pressure. We've seen him do it many times before, but he's certainly done a good job of it this year."

To Gannon, it's consistent with what he's seen over the years.

"Things have changed on offense in New England -- you've had Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, now Bill O'Brien [as offensive coordinator], and different players across the board," he said. "But there's been one constant -- Tom Brady."

That constant wasn't on the field with his teammates Wednesday, yet there's little doubt he'll be there Sunday in the rematch with the Bills, once again carrying the hopes of the team on his shoulders.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.