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Still the king; Tom Brady is a mere dark horse in this season's MVP race. But make no mistake -- nobody is as important to his own team than the Patriot's superstar.

Alarms were sounding all over the region this week. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady missed consecutive practices, reportedly because of an injury to his left shoulder. Brady was said to be in discomfort. In New England, this is like hearing that the Kennedy legacy has come under renewed attack.

On Wednesday, the Pats said Brady's absence was for non-injury related reasons. You never know what to believe when Bill Belichick is running the show. For several seasons, Belichick regularly listed Brady on the weekly injury report with a mysterious shoulder problem. It never prevented Brady from playing and winning Super Bowls.

This year, it's his non-throwing shoulder. According to ESPN, Brady needed X-rays after getting drilled at the end of a scramble last week against the Dolphins. One report said Brady was checked for a separation and informed that he was "all set."

Maybe Brady is simply tired from carrying his team for the last four months. Heading into this afternoon's regular-season finale against the Bills, Brady is having another sensational

year for the AFC East champions, who have won seven straight and can sew up home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a victory.

Brady has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for a career-high 4,897 yards and 36 touchdowns. He has 11 interceptions and a 105.1 passer rating. He needs just 188 passing yards to surpass 5,084 -- which was the NFL record until the Saints' Drew Brees broke it last Monday night against the Falcons.

In fact, Brady might own the record come Sunday evening. New Orleans coach Sean Payton hasn't said whether he will sit Brees against Carolina today. The Saints need a win and a loss by the 49ers against the 2-13 Rams -- an unlikely outcome -- to get a first-round bye.

Brady has 16 TD passes and one interception during the Pats' winning streak. The Pats would finish 13-3 with a win over the Bills, giving them at least 13 wins in five of the last nine seasons. In most years, that would make Brady a lock for league MVP, which he won last year for the second time.

But Brady is being dismissed this year. Most observers see the MVP race as a two-man battle between Aaron Rodgers and Brees. Rodgers, who won last year's Super Bowl and was recently named AP Male Athlete of the Year, is the favorite. Brees is gaining. Brady is the dark horse, an afterthought. Tim Tebow has gotten far more attention over the last seven weeks.

I have no problem with Rodgers or Brees. They've had extraordinary seasons. You can make a compelling case for MVP for either. Rodgers is probably the best quarterback in the sport today because he can do so much on the run. But if I had a vote, I'd cast it for Brady because he's the long shot and the most valuable to his own team.

The Pats have the worst defense in the league. I know the Packers are rated 31st, but I've seen New England's D up close and they're worse. Brady has a weak running game. His featured back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, averages 3.7 yards a carry. Green-Ellis's longest run is 18 yards. His offensive line has been compromised by injuries all season.

Brady's main weapons are an undersized slot receiver (Wes Welker) and two second-year tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez). Brady makes players into stars. He has done it his entire career. Deion Branch was a Super Bowl hero with Brady and an ordinary guy when he left. You can make a similar case for Rodgers or Brees, but their surrounding casts are better.

OK, I'm biased. I've considered Brady the best quarterback of all time since he won his third Super Bowl. The argument would be a lot easier if he started winning playoff games again. After winning 10 straight postseason games to start his career, Brady has gone 4-5. The Pats haven't won a playoff game since the AFC title game after the 2007 season.

It would be nice to see Brady make another run and tie Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four Super Bowl titles. It would be great for the game. I can't get worked up over another Bowl with the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger. It's hard to imagine Joe Flacco in the big game, or whoever is playing quarterback for Houston. Don't get me started on Tebow.

Think about a Pats-Packers Super Bowl, with Rodgers shooting for a second straight title and Brady gunning for a fourth. With those defenses, it could be a shootout for the ages in Indianapolis, where Peyton Manning set a record or two. Or how about Patriots-Saints, in a showdown of the two quarterbacks who broke Marino's passing mark this year?

But first, Brady has to deal with the Bills, who have been a mere speed bump for the Pats in late-season meetings in the Brady-Belichick era. New England has won the second meeting of the year all 10 times since Brady took over under center. The average score of those 10 games has been 28-7. The Bills haven't scored more than 10 points in any of the last eight "rematches."

The Bills are on a one-game winning streak against the Pats after dropping 15 straight. That thrilling, 34-31 victory at The Ralph seems like eons ago. It's hard to believe that five weeks later, they were tied at 5-3 atop the division. Six weeks after that, the Patriots were six games in front of the Bills.

Brady had one of the worst games of his career that day. He threw four interceptions. The Pats blew a 21-point lead for the first time in his career. He also threw for 387 yards and four TDs, which tells you how high the standard is for the guy.

That game in Buffalo could cost Brady a shot at a third MVP award. Just think, if two of those tipped balls had fallen incomplete, he might have passed for 440 yards and five or six TDs. The Pats would be looking to finish 14-2 today for the second year in a row.

So the Pats will be motivated to avenge that loss, as they did in the 31-0 "bookend" game in 2003. The more you think about it, the more implausible the notion that the Bills could beat them again. Brady and the Pats are tough to beat in December. They're especially formidable with vengeance and home-field advantage on the line.

The Bills should be motivated, too. We've seen our share of 7-9 seasons. But sweeping the Patriots would be an achievement. A win today would send them soaring into the offseason. For a decade, the Bills have measured themselves against New England. Too many times, we've looked up at the end of the year and realized the gap had become larger.

Beating Brady twice in one season, now that would actually look like progress.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com