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OTHERS GET INK, BUT BRADY GETS VICTORIES

There's no more talk about Bledsoe Bowls in these parts. I've spent three days in the land of the Patriots, and the old quarterback's name barely came up at all. There's been a much greater buzz about Jason Varitek's contract demands and the emergence of former college wrestler Stephen Neal as New England's right guard.

Drew Bledsoe has become old news, a sporting relic, just another quarterback on the Pats' schedule. Bill Belichick gives him the usual lip service: Drew is Drew, he still has a great arm, etc. But we're well beyond the point where people even bother to argue the relative merits of Bledsoe versus Tom Brady.

It's no disgrace. Brady is a rising superstar. For my money, he's not merely the best quarterback in the NFL, but the best player, period.

But we're at the midway point of the season, when the world begins to take Brady for granted, when the experts start floating the names of all the other quarterbacks for league MVP. This year's chic candidates include the Colts' Peyton Manning, the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper, the Eagles' Donovan McNabb.

Brady? Despite his two Super Bowl MVP awards, there's still a notion that he's the product of a great system, that only in the Belichick universe could his star be so luminous. And he is perfect for the Pats, right down to his selfless, team-oriented approach. He seems concerned only with the thing he does best: win.

"I think as long as we're winning games and he's at the quarterback position, we're doing fine," said tackle Matt Light. "We all have a lot of confidence in Tommy. He knows how to go out and win games, and we've been doing it for a long time. So I don't care what the popular opinion is out there."

"I think everybody likes different things about different players," Brady said Friday morning before practice. "Peyton Manning is tremendous. Daunte Culpepper is having a great year. Donovan McNabb is great. There are a lot of great quarterbacks in this league.

"I just think of always trying to improve as a team. I think, offensively, it always starts with the quarterback."

Brady admits he hasn't played consistently well this season. He has completed 59.8 percent of his passes, slightly below his career average. He has 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had a rough time at Pittsburgh two weeks ago, throwing two interceptions and getting sacked a season-high four times.

That was New England's only loss, its first defeat after a league-record 21 consecutive wins. He is 47-13 as a starter, the highest winning percentage (.783) for a quarterback with at least 50 NFL starts. You don't hear much about his toughness, but he has started 54 games in a row.

The Bills should expect his best game Sunday night. A national TV audience brings out the best in him. Brady is one of those rare athletes whose performance is elevated in a big moment, like Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter. Last year, Brady played four games against the co-MVPs -- Manning and Steve McNair -- and the Pats won all four. Brady has qualities that can't be measured, until it's time to measure him for a Super Bowl ring.

"I think it comes down to being able to focus really well," he said. "Our team has played really well in some big games. I think that comes from practicing hard and preparing like it's going to be very important.

"Things that go on in our practices, I mean, the expectations are always high for each other. People don't allow anybody not to be accountable. You have to be held accountable."

So as the quarterback, Brady should be the most accountable of all. That means embracing the highest standard and never being content, right?

"Very much so," he said. "Yeah, exactly. It's the best way to be."
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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