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Tom Brady's last stand

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While the Patriots' offensive woes aren't all on Tom Brady, his $1 million replacement will get his shot sooner than you think.

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Almost every good movie is told in three acts.

In the first act we meet our hero as he does something to endear him to us - like saving a cat - and presents a great challenge that will define the story. In the second act our hero rises and falls, with a single moment signaling the downturn toward his demise. Then, in the climactic finale he rises from the ashes and blows up the Death Star.

No writer from Tinseltown is needed for the movie about Tom Brady's career through the first two acts. Yet it's this final act that has yet to be written, and which will in part define his career: Will he save the world from General Zod, or will he be sacrificed to the Kraken for the good of the many?

The writing is on the walls in Foxborough: Unless something changes fast, Brady's days with the Patriots are numbered.

Brady arrived on the scene in 2000, winning the Super Bowl the following season. The first five seasons of his career were triumphant. Yet it wasn't until the following season that he began his ascent toward immortality, capturing NFL scoring records and coming within seconds of a perfect season.

In week 1 of the 2008 season, the shocking turning point of his storied career hit. Worse than the loss in the 18-1 Super Bowl, Brady's knee was injured in a game against the Chiefs and he missed the last 15 games of the season. Since then he simply hasn't been the same quarterback who set the single-season record for touchdown passes in 2007.

When the Patriots traded Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings in 2010, I thought it was a great move. Brady was still addicted to throwing deep passes to Moss, but Tom Terrific simply can't hit those deep passes like he did pre-injury. Despite having a quick receiver like Wes Welker, a speedster like Aaron Dobson and a big target like Rob Gronkowski, Brady has struggled for years to stretch the field.

That Brady-less 2008 season for the Patriots was the precursor to where we are today. In that season the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm (Cassel went 22-31 as a starter after that season). While Brady would have led the team to the playoffs, it was the season that cemented Belichick's legacy and a key realization for the team: They didn't need Brady to win.

Before this current season, Brady admitted himself that he sees a time when the Patriots will let him go. "If that team doesn't feel like I'm a value to them," he told Andrea Kramer, "then maybe there's another team out there that may see that."

He's got reason to keep that day on his radar. He's seen far too many great players jettisoned by the very team that has kept him as the rock through it all.

Safety Lawyer Milloy, coming off back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl, was flat-out cut by the Patriots days before the start of the 2003 season. Adam Vinatieri, legend of the snow game against the Raiders and winner of three three-point Super Bowls, was let go in 2006. Then-five-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour was traded to the Oakland Raiders days before the 2009 season. Randy Moss was traded away in 2010. The Patriots watched Wes Welker walk away just last year.

Yet it's Ty Law whom I think was the precursor to Brady's Patriots exit. Law was a cornerstone of New England's defense during their Super Bowl runs. Three weeks after their third Championship, the Patriots cut Law due to his $12 million salary. That was less than two years after the team drafted Asante Samuel, who became Law's replacement.

In 2015, Brady is due $12 million. Garoppolo is due about $11 million less. Look what the Seattle Seahawks have been able to do with a quarterback making a fraction of Brady and Manning. It's the same thing the Patriots were able to do when they were winning Super Bowls.

Some think Brady is too special to New England fans for them to let him go. "(Owner) Bob Kraft doesn't have the nerve to do anything with Tom Brady," 92.3 The Fan's Kevin Kiley told me from Cleveland on Friday.

Just like the San Francisco 49ers couldn't possibly let Joe Montana walk away. Peyton Manning now plays for the Denver Broncos. Jerry Rice once called Oakland home.

That "special" lesson is also one Belichick learned quite well as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Bernie Kosar was the local hero, untouchable in the eyes of the fans, press and owner. Belichick's unwillingness to tempt fate and let Kosar go was, in his mind, one of the key decisions that spelled Belichick's doom in Cleveland.

From David Halberstam's The Education of a Coach:

For almost a decade Kosar had been the signature sports figure in a sports-crazed city.... Whatever had been wrong with Cleveland and the Cleveland Browns in recent years, it was not, in the minds of the fans, Bernie Kosar. ... In the view of Belichick and his staff, there had been too many times when a receiver was open for just a brief instant and Kosar had not thrown....

Sound familiar? With Kosar, Belickick couldn't take the Browns where he wanted. He learned then to cut players, even beloved quarterbacks, before it was too late. He also learned to do it with tact and to honor the legacy of the player. Done right, the cutting or trading of Brady will look humane.

In 2001 we saw Brady benefit from the very thing that will send him packing. Months after signing a $103 million contract, Drew Bledsoe was watching from the sidelines as Brady guided the team to the Super Bowl. While it was a Bledsoe chest injury that opened the door for Brady, it would have happened soon either way.

The same opportunity is coming for Jimmy Garoppolo, who already sent one Patriots quarterback packing. Brady has looked more like a statue in the pocket than he ever did before. While he's been shifty in recent seasons, dodging oncoming tacklers, the leaky offensive line through the first three weeks has put a target on him. Rodin would be proud.

Watching guys like Tony Romo and Teddy Bridgewater and even Philip Rivers scramble when needed this week must have made Bill Belichick and Kraft long for a guy who can extend plays...just the way Brady once did.

His completion percentage and quarterback rating have fallen too, dropping every season since 2010. While he wasn't bad in the playoffs at Denver, he wasn't great. In playoff losses to the Ravens, Giants, Jets and Ravens the four seasons before that, Brady was "pretty bad," "fine," "okay" and "not good."

These playoff losses are starting to eat at his legacy and his future prospects with the team.

Some will accuse me of "blaming" the Patriots' soft start in 2014 on Brady. I don't try to hide my love of the Patriots. They're my favorite sports franchise and I love what Kraft, Belichick and Brady have done to set the highest bar for NFL teams for decades to come.

Yet as the face of the franchise and garnering one of the team's highest salaries, certainly some of the responsibility sits on Brady's shoulders. No, he's not the one who let Welker and Logan Mankins go. But he is the one who's started to miss open receivers. He is the one who had a meltdown last season in the Patriots' Thursday Night squeaker against the New York Jets. Whether he has Pro Bowl receivers to throw to or not, when the B-list guys get open downfield the "future Hall of Famer" needs to connect with them.

My point isn't to blame anyone for needing an interception by a 325-pound tackle to beat the Oakland Raiders and a rookie quarterback. I'm simply reading the Boston tea party leaves here. No one, not even someone as "Terrific" as Tom, is bigger than "The Patriot Way."

We'll know a lot more seven days from now. New England faces a brutal week, on the road against the strong running game of the Kansas City Chiefs, then at home on a short week against the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, who will have had two weeks to prepare for the game. Vying potentially with both of these teams for seeding and a playoff spot, this is the most important week of the season for Brady and the Patriots. We'll have a much better picture in one week.

But unless the offense turns around and the Patriots get back to the Super Bowl this season, Tom Brady will win his fourth Super Bowl wearing another team's jersey (my money is on the Minnesota Vikings).

The writers in Hollywood are already pecking away at that ending.