Swiveling in the pocket as he eyed the Ravens' coverage schemes during the AFC championship game last January, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady certainly didn't lack for inviting targets downfield.
Brady threw to tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. During a 28-13 loss at Gillette Stadium, he passed with 320 yards for one touchdown and two interceptions.
Heading into Sunday's rematch against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, however, Brady is no longer so fortunate. Twenty-seven of Brady's 29 completions that day went to players no longer on the Patriots' roster.
Hernandez is in prison and faces first-degree murder charges. Welker is now a slot receiver for the Denver Broncos. Lloyd is out of football and trying to launch an acting career.
As the Patriots reel from tight end Rob Gronkowski's season-ending knee injury, the story of their season has become Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' steady adjustment to an entirely different set of receiving options. Despite the overhaul, Brady has maintained his high offensive standards and kept New England (10-4) atop the AFC East standings.
"You can always say they've got different guys, but there's always Tom, and he's the orchestrator of it all," Ravens strong safety James Ihedigbo said. "He gets guys in the right positions. He gets the ball to his go-to guys. They have guys that are playmakers, and he's getting the ball to them."
Although the Patriots aren't nearly as explosive as last season and lack a red-zone threat without Gronkowski, their Brady-led offense remains productive.
New England's new-look group ranks eighth in total offense, averaging 390.7 yards per game behind the sixth-ranked passing offense and 12th-ranked rushing offense.
"They're definitely not looking like the same team because they don't have the same players," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "They still have Tom Brady, so they can always win."
It's now an offense built around shifty, undersized wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who are relied on more for their sure hands and crisp routes than their speed.
Edelman has been targeted a team-high 129 times and leads the Patriots with 89 receptions for 914 yards and six touchdowns, and Amendola has 51 catches for 579 yards and two touchdowns.
Much like Welker did in the past, Edelman and Amendola specialize in working underneath patterns and finding holes in a defense. Both are dangerous after the catch. Against the Patriots, defenses have to be alert for fast-developing plays.
"We're going to play them the same way we've been playing them, we're going to play physical," Smith said. "We're going to get up in their face and play everybody aggressive, and they're going to have to make quick decisions."
In a 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins last week, Brady was 34 of 55 for 364 yards and two touchdowns. But red-zone troubles cost the Patriots. A last-minute interception by Brady capped a game in which the Patriots finished 1-for-4 inside the Dolphins' 20.
Because of Edelman and Amendola, the Patriots have been fairly well equipped to absorb the loss of Gronkowski, who caught 39 passes for 592 yards and four touchdowns in just seven games before suffering a serious knee injury Dec. 8.
"The Patriots do as good a job as anybody in the league over the years of fitting players into their offense, and then taking advantage of the things that they do well," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "They do the underneath stuff, the short passing game, the inside routes, and they do a great job of that. It changes somewhat in terms of who does what for them.
"We've got to be aware of what each guy does and what they do well, but the offense still runs through Tom Brady, and he drives it. He's the guy who makes it all work for them. So it doesn't really change, in that sense. We are still playing Tom Brady."
The Patriots are sixth in the NFL in scoring offense, averaging 26.4 points a game. How the Ravens handle assignments against a variety of personnel groupings and tackle in the open field will be key on defense.
"They do a little different stuff, but they pretty much do the same things with Edelman and Amendola that they did with Welker," cornerback Corey Graham said. "Those guys are very quick receivers, so you've got to make sure you get them on the ground after the catch the ball."
Brady has adeptly incorporated multiple players into the passing mix, including rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson (35 catches for 492 yards and four touchdowns) and Kenbrell Thompkins (32 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns) and versatile running back Shane Vereen (43 catches for 381 yards and one touchdown).
"They have a great general in Brady," defensive lineman Arthur Jones said. "They have a bunch of guys who aren't big names that can make plays. They have lots of weapons."
Throughout the evolution of the offense, Brady has been the mainstay for New England.
A two-time former NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, Brady has completed 60.9 percent of his throws this season for 4,049 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
"Tom Brady is having one heck of a year, maybe one of his best years that he's ever had, because with some of the guys and the weapons that he has had in the past being gone, they're still productive," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I think Tom is having one of his best years ever and just really running the offense very, very well."
Brady, however, lost twice to the Ravens last season, and over his career has thrown for more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (eight) against only the Ravens.
"It would be nice to go out there and play this team and play them well for once," Brady told New England reporters. "We haven't done a great job against them offensively."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun