BOSTON — Tom Brady is near the beginning of the conversation when debating the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
He was the least-talked about quarterback leading up to the Browns’ trip to New England — even if he is likely to have the largest impact on today’s game.
As too many words to count were devoted during the week to the brain health of Jason Campbell (ready to play) and Brandon Weeden (still out) and the unpreparedness and unworthiness of Caleb Hanie and Alex Tanney, Brady took a backseat. New England (9-3) lacks mystery and desperation. Brady is going to start every week, and he’s almost always going to play well and win.
“My opinion, Tom Brady is the greatest draft pick in the history of the NFL,” Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton said of the sixth-round selection in 2000. “I might go so far to say he’s the greatest player that’s ever played. That’s not just because we’re playing him. That’s my belief.”
The Browns defense enters the daunting matchup fresh off its low point of the season. The offense had finally made a winning play at a critical time, as Josh Gordon’s 95-yard touchdown gave the Browns a three-point lead with 3:55 left. But the highly ranked and proud defense couldn’t hold up its end as the Jaguars went 80 yards for the winning touchdown and handed Cleveland (4-8) its sixth loss in seven games.
“Last week was uncharacteristic of how we want to be perceived around the league and how well we’ve been playing from a unit standpoint,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “Every guy has a bitter taste in their mouth right now. You don’t want to end like that.
“We were the last unit on the field. We have enough capable guys to win that ballgame toward the end and when we didn’t, it was a big disappointment on the defensive side of the ball.”
The defense has been frustrated much of the year by the offense’s turnovers and insufficient production. Almost as infuriating is the inconsistent nature of the defense.
The Browns rank fifth against the run, fifth against the pass and fourth overall — the only team in the league in the top five in all three. They allow 4.44 yards per play to lead the league and are tied for second at 3.5 per rush.
Horton is the first to quote the impressive numbers, but the Browns also rank 29th in the red zone — 22 touchdowns on 35 trips, 62.9 percent — and failed to hold leads vs. Detroit and Jacksonville at home.
“You’ve got to make them kick threes,” Horton said. “Threes win in this league for you as a defense. (Our rank is) hideous to me.”
If the Browns can’t stop Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, receiver Julian Edelman and running back Shane Vereen from scoring touchdowns, they have little shot at an upset. Brady is at the top of that list.
In addition to his three Super Bowl rings, he shares the all-time lead with John Elway with five conference titles. His .775 winning percentage (145-42) in the best of the Super Bowl era, and the wins rank fifth. He’s 92-16 at home – the best since the AFL-NFL merger – and is the career leader with 17 playoff wins.
The incredible numbers apply to individual statistics, too. He’s fourth all time with a 96.0 passer rating, fourth with 254.4 yards per game, tied for fourth with Drew Brees with 353 touchdowns, sixth with 4,084 completions and seventh with 48,073 yards.
“It’s exciting to go against not only one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but one of the best quarterbacks of all time,” safety T.J. Ward said. “It’s definitely a challenge. We’re up for it.”
Ward ranks 49ers great Joe Montana as his top quarterback of all time, with Brady, Peyton Manning and Elway grouped behind him. But Ward wouldn’t concede that Brady will make a bunch of plays today.
“Nope. Nope, nope, nope,” he said. “We’ve played a bunch of great quarterbacks. Tom, he’s just a little bit ahead of that class. But you can’t really change anything, you’ve got to come in the same way.”
Brady’s numbers aren’t as gaudy this year, as he broke in a new receiving corps and Gronkowski was hurt for a chunk of the season. He’s completed 61 percent for 3,267 yards with 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions, an 88.0 rating and 32 sacks. He’s heating up as winter approaches — 70 percent, 1,443 yards, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, 112.4 rating in the last four games.
“I’m glad that he’s our quarterback,” coach Bill Belichick said. “There’s no other quarterback I’d rather have as Tom Brady, that’s for sure. I respect and appreciate all the things he does for this football team both on and off the field.”
Brady is the master of identifying the most favorable matchup and exploiting it. He will certainly test rookie Leon McFadden, who will replace Chris Owens (sprained knee) as the third cornerback. McFadden, a third-round pick, has never faced anyone like Brady.
“You’ve got to embrace it,” McFadden said. “Football is a game of competing. I’m going to step up to the plate and handle that task.”
Brady is 4-1 vs. the Browns in his 14-year career — the loss came in the last meeting in 2010 to coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — but without a 300-yard game. He’s completed 59 percent with six touchdowns, three interceptions, an 86.0 rating and a high of 265 yards in 2007. He lost 20-18 to Arizona last year when Horton was coordinator, but completed 61 percent for 316 yards with a touchdown, interception and four sacks.
The Browns, who haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer this year, remain supremely confident despite the matchup and last week’s collapse.
“I feel like this defense is elite,” free safety Tashaun Gipson said. “We’ve just got to make plays when it counts. Numbers don’t lie and our numbers are statistically up there.”
The Browns have started 20 quarterbacks in the last 15 years, and avoided No. 21 with the return to health of Campbell. Brady is one of only four to start for the Patriots in the last 20 years.
“In my opinion, he’s the best to do it in this last decade,” Jackson said. “He’s smart, intelligent, he has the credentials to back it up.
“It’s a great opportunity this week. We win this one, we play great on defense, that’s great momentum to finish the season off.”
If Brady’s not the focus of the conversation after the game, the Browns defense did something right.
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WHO: Cleveland vs. New England
TIME: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WKNR 850-AM, WKRK 92.3-FM, WNCX 98.5-FM