FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Tom Brady grimaced as he lay on the ground and grabbed his injured left knee. His season was over minutes after it began.

Barely a year later, his wide smile was clearly visible in the helmet that he bumped against Wes Welker’s to celebrate one of his six touchdown passes in the biggest offensive performance in the Patriots’ 50-year history.

Chances are that 59-0 win over the Tennessee Titans last Sunday was a harbinger: more smiles as Brady becomes more comfortable on the field, sidestepping rushers, zipping accurate passes and countering adjustments defenders make at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s always important to see your leader play well,” said running back Kevin Faulk, a Patriot for all of Brady’s 10 seasons, but “I bet if you ask him right now, he would tell you he’s not all the way back.”

Brady’s 2008 season ended midway through the first quarter of the first game when he suffered torn knee ligaments on a hit by Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard. He played in all four preseason games this year, but he could only readjust to high-speed, regular-season action by facing it.

In the opener against Buffalo, Brady threw two scoring passes in the final 2:06, bringing the Patriots back from a 24-13 deficit to a 25-24 win that was hailed as another in a long line of his winning comebacks. But he led the Patriots to just one touchdown in the first 57:54.

They didn’t get any the next Sunday in a 16-9 loss to the New York Jets, then he threw a total of just two touchdown passes in the next two games, both wins. The following week, Brady overthrew a wide-open Randy Moss in the end zone, then lost a fumble with 1:37 left in regulation and lost to his former offensive coordinator, Denver head coach Josh McDaniels, 20-17 in overtime.

Doubters sounded off. Would he ever be the Brady of old?

Silencing them wasn’t a priority for the two-time Super Bowl MVP who was the regular-season MVP in 2007, when he threw an NFL record 50 touchdown passes.

“I don’t know if I’d approach it like that, or look at it like that,” Brady said. “I think it’s a long season and we’ve played in some games where we’ve executed well. We’ve played some games that we haven’t executed so well. I’m happy that I was able to hit the guys that were open, I know that. That gives me a lot of confidence going into this week.”

Boy, were they ever open.

On several routes, Welker and Moss waved their hands toward Brady, trying to make sure he noticed them as they slipped behind defensive backs. Welker caught 10 passes for two touchdowns and Moss grabbed eight for three scores. The sixth touchdown pass was a 38-yarder to Faulk.

Brady did all that despite a game-long snowstorm, and he spent most of the second half on the bench. He left after the first series of the third quarter and still completed 29 of 34 passes for 380 yards and no interceptions as the Patriots improved to 4-2 with a club-record 619-yard offensive output.

That swayed critics even though the Titans are winless and started two rookies at cornerback. Or maybe Brady just got a late start to his typical October, a month in which he’s 11-1 with 3,292 yards passing for 39 touchdowns and just three interceptions since 2006.

But did he reach his own high expectations?

“As a quarterback, you want to play well every week,” Brady said. “When you don’t hit the passes that are there, or your team loses games, or your team doesn’t get into the end zone, it’s very frustrating. You’ve got to find ways to do a better job of that.

“Each week, it seems like the preparation is a little bit better and the execution seems to be a little bit better, too.”

That should continue with the Patriots in the midst of a favorable part of their schedule. They play another winless team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in London on Sunday. Then they have a bye. A 5-2 record with a week off would be a solid foundation before a tough four-game stretch that includes games at Indianapolis and New Orleans.

Last year, Peyton Manning missed the entire preseason when he had a bursa sac removed from his left knee. He started slowly and the Colts were 3-4 before winning their remaining nine regular-season games.

Another positive sign of a Brady turnaround was touchdown passes against Tennessee of 38 and 40 yards, his longest completions of the year.

“When you can hit those plays and change field position like that, as well as being able to run it and have that ball-control offense, that makes it tough,” Brady said. “You have to be able to expand the field vertically, and that’s something that we didn’t do very well in the first five weeks of the season.”

Brady picked apart the Titans for an NFL-record five touchdown passes in a quarter, the second, and tied his franchise record of six scoring passes in a game set during the 16-0 season in 2007. The 45-0 halftime lead was the biggest in league history and the 59-point margin was the largest since the 1970 merger.

And there’s still room for Brady to get better.

“It was just a game that he had,” Faulk said, “and he’s just working to improve himself each and every day.”

Brady’s next chance comes on the other side of the Atlantic, where Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris must figure out how to stop him.

“Tom Brady is special, arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the league, if not the best,” Morris said.

Brady may not be his old self yet, but his outstanding performance on a snow-covered field moved him closer. He can take another step forward at Wembley Stadium, a field built for soccer — flatter, with less grass than football players are used to.

“Every field that we play on is different,” Brady said. ” It’s not too much of a problem.”

Nothing really is when the real Tom Brady steps up.


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