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BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL

Tom Brady’s toughness is as important as his numbers

Tom Brady signaled his fourth quarter touchdown pass that gave the Patriots a 22-17 lead. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Tom Brady stood in the Patriots’ locker room, smiling and chatting up a small group of friends headlined by his old pal, Jim Gray.

Did he ever think of not playing in Sunday’s 22-17 win over the Jets to let his knee get right for the Patriots’ stretch run.

“Nope. Nope,” Brady said a few minutes later.

Bill Belichick answered questions with his usual drab, monotone delivery. With Brady missing two practices last week because of a knee injury, and taking several big hits from the Jets, did the coach ever consider going with his healthy backup, Jimmy Garoppolo?

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“Our thoughts are to win the game,” Belichick said.

Yup, just business as usual for Brady and the Patriots, who improved to 9-2 and kept pace with the Oakland Raiders for the top spot in the AFC.

Never mind the fact that Brady’s right knee swelled up on him last week after he took a shot from Seattle’s Kam Chancellor two weeks ago. It was bad enough that Brady sat out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday, which is like telling an 8-year-old that he has to sit out Christmas.

Garoppolo took all the snaps those two days, and said that he wasn’t sure who would play quarterback against the Jets.

“I really didn’t know. It’s kind of how it always is around here, you never know when you’re going to play,” he said after the game. “If I did, I’d be ready.”

But Brady toughed it out, of course. He always toughs it out. He finished with 286 yards, two touchdowns, and, most importantly, no turnovers.

“Had a chance to get out there on Friday and run around a little bit, [and the] coaches put me in,” said Brady, trying to convince us that his participation in Sunday’s game wasn’t a foregone conclusion. “There’s a lot of time I wish I spent on the practice field that I spent getting treatment. I’m happy the week’s over. It was a long week.”

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And he saved his toughest performance for the fourth quarter. Trailing, 17-13, Brady completed 4 of 6 passes for 49 yards, leading the Patriots to a field goal. Trailing, 17-16, with five minutes left, Brady led the Patriots 83 yards for the winning touchdown to rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell with 1:56 left.

He completed 6 of 9 passes on that drive, accounting for all 83 yards. He converted a fourth-and-4 to James White, then found Chris Hogan for 25 yards on the next play to set up the score.

Even though Brady was clearly hobbled by that knee injury, moving with an obvious hitch in his step and unable to sit down on the bench without using his arm to brace himself.

“He’s a tough dude,” Garoppolo said. “It’s impressive.”

When it came down to crunch time, Brady played his best, knee injury or no.

“He’s the leader of our offense and a true competitor,” said Hogan, who played through a back injury. “Nothing will really keep him out of the game. When you see your leader not at 100 percent, you just want to play a little harder because of that.”

Brady cleared a couple of significant milestones Sunday. He passed 60,000 career passing yards in the second quarter, joining Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Dan Marino in the club.

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More importantly, the win was the 200th of Brady’s career, regular season and postseason, tying Manning for the most in NFL history. It was also Brady’s 50th career fourth-quarter comeback.

Not even Belichick could downplay those accomplishments.

“It says a lot about him and what he’s been able to do for this franchise,” Belichick said. “A quarterback’s job is to win. He’s won a lot. Glad he’s our quarterback.”

But for about the first 53 minutes of Sunday’s game, it didn’t look like Brady would reach that milestone. His balky knee prevented him from stepping up in the pocket and escaping the rush. It also prevented him from fully pushing off his back foot, and he sailed several throws over his receivers’ heads.

Patriots assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski and Brady were all smiles after the final whistle.Elsa/Getty Images

Brady and the Patriots fought back from a 10-0 deficit to tie it at halftime, but he had only 117 yards on 25 pass attempts. The Jets were stuffing the run, holding the Patriots to eight attempts, and put the game on Brady’s hobbled leg.

It’s impossible to know if the Patriots would have been better off with Garoppolo at 100 percent than Brady at far less than 100 percent. Brady’s 286 yards came on a whopping 50 pass attempts, for a paltry average of 5.7 yards per attempt.

Only five other times in his past 43 games had Brady averaged less than 6 yards per attempt, and four of those games ended in losses, including last year’s AFC Championship game.

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“You’re right, I wasn’t hitting the ones that were there early,” Brady said. “We just couldn’t make enough plays on the field to put pressure on those guys. I could certainly do a better job.”

But Brady proved once again why he is the best of all time, and why Belichick has faith in him, even when Brady doesn’t move well.

Just as impressive as his two fourth-quarter drives were the way Brady protected the football and converted two fourth downs.

“About as great of a situational football player as I’ve ever been around,” Belichick said. “Some good situation plays that came up that don’t show up in the stats.”

Brady and Belichick did their best to downplay Brady’s injury.

“I try to show up and just do my best,” Brady said. “I don’t think anyone’s feeling great this time of year.”

“It’s Week [12]. I don’t think anybody’s feeling fresh as a daisy,” Belichick said. “Tom did a great job, but so did the other 45 guys today.”

But only one of them had to stare down a ferocious Jets defense, make lightning-quick decisions, deliver perfect throws, and lead his team back from a fourth-quarter deficit on a knee that hampered his mobility.

“He is who he is for a reason,” Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve seen it a lot of times, too, either playing against him or as a football fan.”

Video: Ben Volin and Jim McBride on Patriots-Jets


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.

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