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Brady braced for action With a lost season behind him, Patriots QB is ready to stand and deliver

On the 16th offensive play of the 2008 season, everything changed for the New England Patriots.

As quarterback Tom Brady was attempting a pass, Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard crashed into Brady's left knee.

The Patriots have seen Brady take much harder hits and bounce right back. Not this time.

With pain and worry etched on his face, Brady limped off the field as a stunned Gillette Stadium crowd watched in horror. An MRI confirmed the Patriots' worst fears: He had a torn anterior cruciate ligament. His season was over.

After Brady went through surgeries and months of rehabilitation, a demanding training camp and preseason games in which he absorbed some hard hits and suffered some bruises, his knee -- which is protected by a brace -- apparently is as sound as it was before the injury.

So Brady enters the season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Monday night eager to get back to doing what he does better than most.

"Personally, I'm excited, like all the guys are excited," Brady said this week during a conference call with the Buffalo media. "It's been a long progression of different things I've had to do to get ready and prepare to be back out there. Everything has gone pretty smooth. I've played a lot of football games and understand what I need to do to prepare, what our team needs to do to prepare, and I think we're all committed to doing that."

Still, the questions persist. Is Brady truly back? Can he stand in the pocket with bodies falling around his legs? Does he still have the ability to move and sidestep the pass rush? Will he be able to dissect defenses with the same surgical skill? He showed flashes of his old self in the preseason, but will it carry into the games that really count?

The team that faces Brady on Monday night expects to see the man who has been the greatest player of this decade and one of the finest quarterbacks of all time.

"He'll have his critics that say he doesn't step into his throws," Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "But mentally, and from what it looks like arm strength-wise and how he plays on tape, that's the old Tom Brady."

"He looks the same to me," added cornerback Terrence McGee. "He's Tom Brady. He gets back there all cool, calm and collected -- the three C's -- and delivers that ball with a strong arm and with precision."

Brady said he wasn't as sharp as he needed to be going into last year's opener because his practice reps were limited. But he's taken every snap with the starting offense from the offseason team workouts and minicamps through training camp.

He even successfully lobbied coach Bill Belichick for more playing time in the preseason.

"I've always loved playing in the preseason, and this year was no different," Brady said. "It's invaluable for a quarterback because we don't get hit in practice. I think the important part is you've got to get used to the guys being around you and understand how long you can hold on to the ball.

"You don't want to throw the ball if the [defender] is still three feet away from you. You want to hold it as long as you can to allow your receivers time to get open to be able to make the throws. You get a feel for that in the preseason games and understanding the movement in the pocket that you need."

Brady feels he is regaining his physical and mental sharpness, but admits everything remains a work in progress and there are things he has to continue working on.

"When you come back after not playing for a significant period of time, I wouldn't say we're in midseason form right now," he said. "But you've got to go through the games and the practices. We had probably 40 to 45 practices thus far, and they've all been very helpful. It's just a matter of being under center and taking the reps and understanding that different things come up, the speed of things."

Brady needed all the offseason work he could get not just to get himself back in playing shape, but also to get up to speed with all the changes to the roster.

This is not the same team he led into last season. Gone are six defensive starters, including four long-time stalwarts -- defensive end Richard Seymour and outside linebacker Mike Vrabel were traded, while inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison retired. Free agent cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs as well as defensive end Derrick Burgess are among the 20 new faces on the roster.

The good news in New England is the offense returns intact, with some reinforcements added. All five offensive line starters are back. Receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker also return, and 37-year-old speedster Joey Galloway was signed to back them up.

Former Jacksonville star running back Fred Taylor joins holdovers Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk in what will be one of the NFL's deepest backfields if everyone stays healthy. Chris Baker left the New York Jets to team up with Ben Watson at tight end.

And now Brady is back to engineer the attack and retake his place as the leader of this team and face of the franchise.

"There's nobody better. That's what makes him who he is," Welker said of Brady. "Having him around makes a big difference as far as leadership, and controlling the huddle, and making sure everybody's on the same page."

The last time Brady played an entire season, he threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes as the Patriots shattered league scoring and yardage records en route to an undefeated regular season.

It's unrealistic to expect the Patriots to duplicate what they did in 2007, but anything is possible with Brady elevating the level of play of everyone around him.

"Great players make players around them better, not just by what they do but by their ability to create opportunities for their teammates," Belichick said. "I don't know how you really measure that, but as a coach I definitely know what we're talking about when we say that. That's what great players do, they make plays to help you win games, but they also make their teammates around them better. That's what really makes them valuable. Certainly, I'd put Tom in that category."

The Patriots somehow managed to squeeze out 11 wins without Brady last season. But they fell short of the playoffs for the first time since 2002, which is also the last time they didn't win the AFC East.

Expectations are high once again in New England as the Patriots try to bring a fourth Super Bowl trophy to Foxborough, Mass. No one is more determined to accomplish that goal than the man who is the biggest key to making it happen.

"I think there's a lot of motivation," Brady said. "We finished 11-5 last year and didn't make the playoffs and didn't win the division. Winning championships is what this franchise is all about, and the journey begins on Monday night."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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