The numbers say Tom Brady is having another outstanding season.
— Sixth in passer rating.
— Tied for fifth in touchdown passes.
— Third in yards.
— And first in fewest interceptions per attempt.
The New England quarterback has also completed more than 60 percent of his passes in each of the first eight games for the first time. But the Patriots are just 5-3 and he’s a key contributor to some of those losses — and very nearly a fourth.
“Tom’s always trying to get better and is always working hard at it,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “There are certainly things that he can do better than what we’ve done in the first portion of the season. I know he’ll work hard at trying to maximize his performance.”
The 13-year veteran is coming off his best game of the year with four touchdown passes in a 45-7 win over the St. Louis Rams. But the two games before that were some of his worst of the season.
Brady threw two interceptions, one into the end zone, and was called twice for intentional grounding in a 24-23 loss in Seattle. Then he couldn’t get the Patriots out of their own territory on two consecutive drives after they took a 23-13 lead over the Jets late in the third quarter. That helped New York rally and go ahead 26-23 before Brady did enough to set up two field goals for a 29-26 win in overtime.
“Those last couple of drives, we moved the ball better,” he said after that game. “I wouldn’t say they were great drives, but they were good enough.”
He was much better a week later against the Rams, one of the NFL’s weaker teams. Now, after a bye week, he’s preparing for Sunday’s game with the slumping Buffalo Bills (3-5), a team the Patriots already have beaten 52-28.
“I think everybody clicked,” Brady said. “I think the defense clicked. I think the special teams clicked.”
The Patriots usually do that against the Bills.
New England is 15-1 in the last 16 matchups vs. Buffalo, losing only last season, 34-31, after leading 21-0 late in the second quarter. That was the only time Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams won in nine at-bats against Brady.
“He’s the best I’ve ever played (against),” Williams said. “I think it’s just on the command he has of their offense. He knows what defense you’re in, what it might give up, what it might not give up, and he puts them in a good position.”
Brady was hard on himself after losing the Super Bowl last season to the New York Giants, 21-17. He was called for intentional grounding from his own end zone, a safety, on the Patriots’ first offensive play. Then, he threw two off-target passes with the Patriots ahead 17-15 in the last four minutes.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to miss out on,” he said. “We definitely had ours and didn’t take advantage. I’m right there at the top of the list.”
Brady was sharp again at the start of this season.
He completed 74.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns as the Patriots cruised to a 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans in the opener. But he threw for a total of only two touchdowns with one interception and six sacks in the next two games, losses to Arizona and Baltimore.
He came back strong against Buffalo, rallying from a 21-7 deficit midway through the third quarter. He threw for three scores and ran for another as the Patriots scored touchdowns on six straight possessions.
“What’s made Brady so good over the years is he’s not a guy that forces, really, anything,” Williams said. “He will always take what you give him. If you’re in dime or nickel (defense), he’ll look to run the ball more. If you get in your base personnel, he’ll try to get the receivers involved.”
It helps Brady that he leads the most balanced offense of his career. The Patriots are rushing for 149.6 yards per game. The last time they finished a season with a higher total was 1983 when they averaged 162.8 but missed the playoffs for a fifth straight season.
He also has to size up the particular defensive alignment so he’ll know when to use that ground game and when to pass — and to which receiver.
“The things he does in the pocket have always been strengths of his,” McDaniels said. “I think he’s very aware of those different dynamics that can happen on each pass play. He does, generally, a really good job of distributing the ball where it needs to be distributed and also understanding on certain plays there is a time and a place to hold it.”
The key for Brady is doing that on a consistent basis, game after game, no matter how much the two-time MVP already has accomplished.
“I think he can improve a lot,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “Every day there are things that we talk to him about for that week or from the previous practice or whatever it is. He’s always very anxious to hear them. He has a lot of his own ideas. He has things that he feels like he or we can do.”
So is Belichick happy with Brady’s performance that has helped the Patriots to the AFC East lead, even though they’re just 5-3?
“Yeah,” he said, “but there are things we can all do better.”