- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The NFL preview section for one local newspaper featured a close-up of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's left knee in a brace with the headline: "Better hope this holds."
It was suggested that Brady's surgically repaired knee was the key to the Patriots' success in 2009. Four months later, while the knee might have been the only part of Brady that emerged unscathed, New England achieved one of its primary goals by returning the postseason.
On the first injury report in advance of Sunday's AFC wild-card meeting with the Baltimore Ravens, Brady is listed as being a full participant with right shoulder, right finger and rib ailments (the severity of which varies based on whom you talk to). But Brady's being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year on Wednesday provided an opportunity for both him and his teammates to reflect on how far the franchise quarterback has come since that fateful hit from Bernard Pollard in the 2008 season opener.
"Obviously, he overcame some pretty big odds and it's a good thing for us to have him back out there," said left tackle Matt Light. "But I don't think anybody had any doubt on what he was going to do and his ability."
Added defensive tackle Vince Wilfork: "He has all the respect in the world from this locker room and this organization, as a person and as a player. He deserves everything he gets."
The only person surprised by the news of the award might have been Brady himself, who said he didn't find out until a reporter informed him during his weekly chat with the local media. But after passing for just 76 yards in 2008, Brady justified the honor by throwing for
4,398 yards -- the second-highest total of his career -- while leading New England to a 10-6 record and back into the playoffs after a one-year absence.
Brady, who rarely skips a practice session, has mentioned numerous times how he's learned to savor every moment of the football season. While some players lament a midweek practice, Brady now revels in them -- particularly this time of year.
"I love playing and I love being out there with my teammates," Brady said Wednesday. "Practicing today, that's the greatest reward for us
-- to be part of a team that's successful and to have the good fortune to be playing now.
"I spoke to [injured wide receiver] Wes [Welker] and said things kind of change and evolve when you have an injury like that. You really appreciate the game. Not that you didn't appreciate it before, but, for whatever reason, it's just a different level. When you don't have the opportunity to play, it's different for us."
With Welker placed on season-ending injured reserve, Brady -- now more than ever -- may be the key if the Patriots are to advance in the playoffs. The cornerstone of three Super Bowl-title teams, Brady must find a way to work his magic without one of his favorite targets the past three years.
While Brady's knee has held firm, his season hasn't been without dips.
It seems for every stellar performance in a lopsided victory over Tennessee (29-of-34, 380 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs) or Jacksonville (23-of-26, 267 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs), there were disappointing efforts in losses to the Jets (first meeting: 23-of-47, 216 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) or New Orleans (21-of-36, 237 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs).
For an offense that's struggled to identify a third wide receiver, the loss of Welker is particularly troublesome. Brady played two games this season without Welker and the drop-off in his numbers is startling.
In the 14 games Welker started, Brady completed 67.9 percent of his passes for an average of 278.9 yards per game, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 101.2. In two games without Welker, Brady completed 53.9 percent of his passes for 246.5 yards per game with one touchdown, one interception and a pedestrian 69.2 passer rating.
"It's still Tom Brady," said running back Sammy Morris. "There is still confidence in our offense. Each game is a different entity in itself, so it's not really about flat-out pure numbers, it's about winning."
And no one's done that better than Brady, who's a perfect 8-0 in home playoff games during his career. That's just one reason linebacker Ray Lewis and the Ravens aren't concerning themselves with any injuries -- past or present -- that might be affecting Brady.
"We don't even get caught up into that. 'Oh, Tom has this, let's try to do this, let's try to do that,'" said Lewis. "As soon as you try to do that and leave people man-on-man, then he hurts you. Then he's so heroic because he did it all with three broken ribs and a finger. Forget all that. Bottom line, if he's suited up, he's ready to play, so let's play."
Brady's ready to play. No one needed to remind him Wednesday about his last playoff game -- a heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Brady noted that a loss in the playoffs leaves you wondering what could have been for eight months, until the next season starts.
For Brady, it's been 23 months since that loss in Glendale, Ariz. It's debatable whether he's playing at a level as high as when he led the Patriots to a 16-0 record in 2007, but his teammates are ready to jump on his back this time of year.
"I know in his heart he feels like he hasn't played his best football yet," said Kevin Faulk, "but at the same time, we always have confidence in him."
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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