Tom Brady has been very good.
The New England Patriots need him to be great starting tonight and going forward.
The MVP trophy is already in the bag. It's Peyton Manning's to lose.
But MVP trophies are oftentimes for losers as we've learned in the past.
Tonight is a must win because of a gaffe two Sundays ago in Indianapolis when the Patriots blew a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Brady was near the bottom of the "Blame Pie List" that day. You produce 31 points against a pretty stout defense like the one the Colts have (or we thought they had), your grade is hovering around an A.
But upon further review, beyond the 4th-and-2 gaffe, Brady was outplayed in the clutch by Manning. Again.
In fact, there is a similar theme in each of the Patriots' three losses: Brady hasn't been good, never mind great.
Better yet, the three second halves of those three games were his worst of the season. He was 5-for-14 for 73 yards against the Jets, 8-for-20 for 66 yards against the Broncos and 18-for-23 for 138 yards and one interception against the Colts.
The 2009 Patriots are clamoring for an identity among the NFL elite and they are close.
Their defense is surprisingly better than any of us imagined. It is second in the NFL in points allowed at 16.7 per game, which would be about 15 per game if not for the final four minutes in Indianapolis.
They are tough and aggressive, showing glimpses of the defenses of the Super Bowl champions in 2001, 2003 and 2004.
But everything centers on Brady, especially a game like tonight.
The New Orleans Saints are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, particularly on offense at 36.9 points per game.
That means Brady is probably going to have to guide the offense into the high 30-point range tonight.
This is a national showcase game, particularly for the undefeated Saints.
The Patriots have a lot at stake, again. If they win, they will, at worst, finish 12-4 and have the all-important No. 2 seed, and everything that goes with it (bye and home-field advantage).
Brady has had a remarkable season, considering his gimpy left leg. He has five straight 300-yard plus games, a feat he never accomplished in 2007. He has completed two of every three passes he has attempted. And by tomorrow, win or lose, he will be among the top two or three in touchdown passes.
While Brady can't and won't do it alone, he has to find a way to be even better than the stats say. It might be a fourth quarter comeback, when the chips appear to be down. It might be three second half touchdown drives without an interception.
The Patriots can talk about the importance of winning the division, which is a nice notch on the belt and a guaranteed spot in January.
But they have to win a big game and in 2009 none is bigger than tonight.
The Patriots are close, very close, to being the team to beat in the NFL.
It all starts tonight. And it all starts with Brady.
For nearly a decade, that's usually been a good place to start. By midnight, New Englanders are expecting it to end that way, too.
E-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.