FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady’s expectations for himself have been high from the moment he made his first NFL start back in 2001.
It reached its latest high water mark this past February when he became the most-decorated Super Bowl quarterback in NFL history, after leading the Patriots to a historic comeback win over the Falcons to earn his fifth ring.
But as the Patriots prepare for Sunday night’s rematch with Atlanta, Brady believes he’s yet to play his best this season, despite ranking among the league’s passing leaders at age 40.
“This year I don’t think we’re really where we need to be,” Brady said Wednesday. “We’re certainly 4-2. I think there’s a lot of things we wish we could know better and we’re still working to improve. That’s where we’re at. We’re focused on playing a great team.”
After being forced to sit out four games to serve his “Deflategate” suspension, Brady was virtually unflappable in his first six games last season, throwing for 1,915 yards, 16 touchdowns and only one interception.
Through six games in 2017, he leads the NFL with 1,959 yards passing and is tied for second with 13 touchdowns. He’s thrown two interceptions, but has a 106.9 passer rating that is second only to Kansas City’s Alex Smith.
That production, though, has come at the expense of Brady taking a lot more punishment.
He’s already been sacked 16 times and taken 37 hits in the pocket. In 16 games last season, the Patriots’ offensive line allowed all three of its quarterbacks — Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett — to be sacked just 24 times and take a total of 73 hits.
New England’s line made progress in last week’s win over the Jets by not allowing Brady to be sacked for the first time this season.
But he is expecting to feel lots more pressure this week from a Falcons’ team that is ranked 10th in the NFL in total defense.
While the Patriots have found themselves playing from behind more this season, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said “there’s no one thing” that’s holding the offense back.
“We’ve done some different things during the course of the year where we’ve executed well and had stretches where we’ve done a lot of good things and certainly have had stretches where we didn’t,” McDaniels said. “We talk a lot about our best football being in front of us, and we need to start playing that way.”
One of the most promising signs that Brady and the Patriots could be turning a corner was how much tight end Rob Gronkowski was involved in Sunday’s win.
A week after sitting out with a thigh injury against Tampa Bay, he had a pair of touchdown catches. It was his first game this season with multiple scores.
Brady and Gronkowski have combined for 71 touchdown passes, the second-most in NFL history by a quarterback and tight end.
“He’s a big focal point of our offense,” Brady said of Gronk.
“When he gets going, it’s great for everybody. … He’s obviously a guy that’s been super consistent when he’s been out there for us, and he’s really played that same role this year.”
James White, one of the key offensive stars from February’s Super Bowl win, said that that the offense knows it has yet to execute at high level for a complete game.
Their recent successes aside, Brady has made sure the pursuit of that has remained a priority.
“If we put together a solid 60 minutes, (and) execute well every single play — the sky’s the limit,” Gronkowski said.
NOTES: Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin), and linebackers Harvey Langi (back) and Elandon Roberts (ankle) all sat out practice Wednesday. Receiver Chris Hogan (ribs), running back Rex Burkhead (ribs) and offensive lineman Shaq Mason (shoulder) were all limited participants.