FOXBOROUGH - Since Tom Brady returned from a catastrophic left knee injury suffered in the 2008 season opener when Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard (now a Raven) lunged at the knee and caused it to buckle awkwardly, the Patriots quarterback has started 51 consecutive games.
So nothing - including a left shoulder sprain that kept him out of yesterday’s practice - is likely to prevent Brady from playing in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore Sunday.
“I think we all know how tough he is,’’ said coach Bill Belichick, when asked about Brady’s leadership. “It would take a lot to take him out of a game or anything like that. He’s mentally and physically tough and he’s always there to compete and he competes at a very high level.’’
Brady’s knee injury gave him a glimpse of his football mortality.
He gained a greater sense of appreciation for the grueling journey that is a 16-game season and for what it takes to get back on the field after a serious injury.
It was in that context that Brady was asked yesterday morning about Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who has been the subject of many rumors, including the possibility of a trade and retirement.
“He’s a great friend of mine,’’ Brady said about Manning, who missed the 2011 season because of neck woes. “I’m certainly hoping for the best. The NFL is a better place with a guy like Peyton Manning in it.
“I think we all appreciate the ability to go out there and play every week. Certainly nothing you take for granted because you never know - this could be your last day.’’
The Ravens would like nothing more than to end Brady’s season Sunday. But they know it will take a supreme effort, especially after Brady’s six-touchdown performance in Saturday night’s 45-10 demolition of the Broncos.
It was the kind of effort that commanded the respect of the Ravens, including Terrell Suggs.
Baltimore’s bombastic outside linebacker, who has engaged Brady in a lively war of words in the past, seemed to temper the rhetoric yesterday, expressing his respect for Brady.
“No, there’s no beef,’’ Suggs told reporters. “I guess the genesis of that, it was the incident in ’09, where I almost hit him below the waist.’’
Suggs was called for roughing the passer when the Ravens fell, 27-21, to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Oct. 4, 2009, for lunging at Brady’s knee.
After the Ravens suffered a 23-20 overtime loss to the Patriots in Foxborough Oct. 17, 2010, Suggs said of Brady, “He just better hope he don’t see us again.’’
The next day, Brady fired back:
“Well, he had his chances, so maybe if he gets another chance he can try to back those words up. We play those guys a lot and they’ve only beat us one time in all the times that I’ve played them.
“So they talk a lot for beating us once in nine years.’’
There was none of that back-and-forth yesterday. There was nothing but respect between the rival camps.
“I’ve gotten over it,’’ Suggs said. “That’s where it all started, but you grow and mature.
“I’m pretty much over it. I respect him. When it is all said and done, they are going to speak about three quarterbacks: Johnny [Unitas], Peyton [Manning], and him.
“There’s really no beef.’’
Said Brady of the Ravens: “I have a lot of respect for them and their ability to play and perform under pressure. They’ve been in the playoffs the last four years and they’ve won playoff games in the last four years. They’re a tough team.
“What goes on off the field and the comments that guys make really has no bearing or impact on this game nor will it,’’ Brady said. “A lot of my focus and attention is on what I need to do to be at my best this week for my teammates.
“Hopefully we go out there and play our best game.’’
The Ravens would expect nothing less from Brady, who enters with a 4-1 career record in AFC Championship games, including a 2-0 mark at Gillette Stadium. His lone loss came at Indianapolis in the 2006 season.
“When you speak about Tom, you’re talking about arguably one of the best quarterbacks of all time,’’ said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. “You’ve got your hands full from Day One, before you even step on the field with him, because it’s a film study game with him.
“He wants to [identify] everything that’s coming out and know what you’re in. Your job is to disguise and not show him all of that. It’s a chess match almost.
“Like Peyton Manning, anytime you play Peyton Manning it’s the same type of chess match. So we’ve got our hands full this week. You watched what they did last week against Denver. Just the way they came out and ran their offense - how efficient he was, how many different receivers he hit with the ball.
“I think their offense, period, is playing at a high level.’’