FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – And now you know why New England Patriots fans everywhere panicked or held their breath when Tom Brady went down in practice on Wednesday.

The Patriots are a different, much better, team when the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player is in the game. That was plenty evident in Friday night’s preseason 25-21 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium.

Brady was in the game for two series and the Patriots moved the ball with ease against Tampa Bay. He completed 11 of 12 passes (the lone miss on his last attempt) for 107 yards and a touchdown — a beautifully thrown 26-yard post pattern to Danny Amendola, who passed his first home test as a Patriot.

He threw a perfect ball to tight end Zach Sudfeld — an undrafted free agent out of Nevada who may be the best tight end on the team — on the two-point conversion.

It was a pass that only Sudfeld could catch.

Brady was surgeon-like.

Then Ryan Mallett came in. And while Mallett’s numbers weren’t bad — 12 of 20 for 137 yards and a 22-yard touchdown to the aforementioned Mr. Sudfeld, who made a juggling catch — the difference between the two is staggering.

Brady makes everyone in the huddle better — backs, receivers, even the linemen. He doesn’t hesitate. He makes plays. The offense purrs.

Mallett makes the occasional nice play — his TD pass to Sudfeld was very nice — but is too inconsistent. He misses receivers. Or his pass is just off enough so that they cannot catch and run.

The offense sputters.

And need we bring Tim Tebow into the conversation? Tebow is a gifted athlete, capable of doing many things. But in no way is he ready to run this offense and that was especially evident Friday when he completed just one of seven passes for minus-1 yards.

So it really comes down to Brady.

There was some speculation as to whether he would play in this game. Matthew Slater, a receiver and exceptional special teams player for the Patriots, never doubted he would.

“He is such a competitor,” said Slater. “He is so focused on the goals that he has in mind and the success of this football team. And he’s so selfless when it comes to this football team and it’s success that he’s willing to do anything it takes.

“Even in a preseason game, it’s an opportunity for us to get better and he saw it as that and he went out there and gave it a good effort.”

Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach, wouldn’t talk about Wednesday’s practice, when tackle Nate Solder got pushed back into Brady, clipping his surgically-repaired left knee and sending the quarterback off. “We’re so far past that,” said Belichick.

But it was huge news at the time.

The Twitterverse went through its own Big Bang, tweet after tweet confirming or speculating what had happened. The video was soon on YouTube. How bad was it? Why wasn’t he wearing his knee brace? A helicopter arrived at Gillette. A helicopter! Was he being airlifted to the hospital?

Craziness. But Patriots fans know what Brady’s absence will do to this team.

As one colleague said in the press box, “You have to treat it as if the president was shot. He’s a two-time MVP.”

Well, maybe that’s not a great comparison. But Brady, who was unavailable for comment at deadline, is important to a lot of people in New England. And not just the 52 guys who will be his teammates this year, or the coaching staff.

His arrival back in the 2001 season pumped blood and life and hope into a moribund franchise. Now 36, he’s a celebrity quarterback, married to a supermodel who brings his children to practice.

And no matter what else happens in a game, everything revolves on Tom Brady staying healthy. They know that. As Slater said, “I’m so glad to be on a team with him.”

Against the Bucs, the first defense had four sacks. Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan returned an interception 53 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Amendola, trying to make fans forget Wes Welker, caught six passes for 71 yards.

All great stuff.

But fans came to Gillette Stadium Friday night for one reason: to see if Brady was healthy.

And they liked what they saw. 

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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