The New England Patriots have dealt with injuries to several key players this season. Maybe the only player they can’t afford to lose has one now, too.
It appears Tom Brady, though, will be able to play through his injury and the Patriots will need him against one of the NFL’s best defenses as they try to wrap up the AFC East in a matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brady hurt his lower left leg when he was hit by Buffalo linebacker Jeff Posey on a 3-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter of Sunday’s 35-7 win over the Bills. He spent the rest of the game limping, raising concerns he may have been severely injured.
Those fears were eased on Monday when Brady told listeners on his weekly radio show that he was fine.
“I don’t think it’s anything too major,” Brady said. “It’s feeling kind of what I expected this morning. It’s exactly like I got hit on it, a little stiff. The only time I get banged up, though, I’m running around.”
New England coach Bill Belichick echoed those sentiments, saying Brady was “fine.”
However, Brady sounded less certain on Wednesday. The team’s injury report listed him as questionable with shin and shoulder injuries.
“Hopefully I’ll be out there,” he said. “I’m excited about what this game means for us. It’s going to be a great challenge. We’re playing one of the best teams in the NFC.”
When asked if there was any question whether he’s starting this game, Brady said, “I wish I could elaborate but Belichick said, ‘Don’t say anything about it,’ so what the boss says, that’s what I do.”
New England can win the AFC East and clinch a first-round home playoff game this week with a victory or a Miami loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.
The two-time defending champions quietly have been getting healthier.
Corey Dillon has rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns the last two weeks after sitting out nearly all of three straight games with a sore calf. Running back Kevin Faulk (foot) and receiver David Givens (knee) also have returned the last two weeks, and tight end David Graham (shoulder) could be back after missing four of the last five games.
Still, starting tackle Matt Light hasn’t played since getting hurt in the third game, but has yet to join starting center Dan Koppen on injured reserve. New England has been without six defensive backs for most of the season, including safety Rodney Harrison, and linebacker Tedy Bruschi missed the first six weeks recovering from a mild stroke.
While New England’s defense is still missing key players, the Bucs defense looks very healthy.
Tampa Bay moved into a tie atop the NFC South with a 20-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Buccaneers have held their last three opponents to a combined 33 points and an average of 264.7 total yards. Only Chicago and Indianapolis have given up fewer points this season than Tampa, which boasts the league’s second-ranked defense.
“They’ve always been a very good defensive team. That continues to be the case,” Belichick said. “They’re good against the run. They’re good against the pass. They turn the ball over. They’re good on third down. They’re good on first down. They are pretty much good at everything, that’s why they’re at the top of the league.”
The Bucs tied the Panthers for first place with Sunday’s win, but Tampa would take the division title if it wins out because it currently has a better division record (3-1) than Carolina (2-2).
“It’s exciting. It certainly makes it more fun to come to work,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, whose team has missed the playoffs the past two years after winning the Super Bowl.
Bucs quarterback Chris Simms took over the starting job in late October and struggled at first, but has since grown more comfortable in the pocket. He’s led the team to wins in four of the last five games, and the third-year pro from Texas hasn’t thrown an interception in three weeks.
“I think he realizes that one of the key ingredients to winning in football is good decision-making and not turning the ball over, don’t put your team in bad situations,” Gruden said.
“We are excited about what he has done. I think he knows he has work to do, but he is making progress.”
Simms has been helped by rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams returning from a foot sprain that caused him to miss two games and part of another. Williams ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s win, leaving him 76 yards shy of joining Errict Rhett (1994) as the only rookies in team history to rush for 1,000 yards.
Temperatures are expected to be in the 30s for kickoff. New England has won 15 straight games when the game-time temperature is 35 degrees or colder, and Brady is 19-0 as a starter when it’s below 40.
Tampa Bay finally won twice in freezing temperatures during its Super Bowl season, but is 2-21 overall when the temperature is below 40 degrees.
“That ought to be an afterthought,” Gruden said. “We’re 9-4 playing the defending two-time world champions. You ought to play naked if you have to.”