It's late in the first quarter. A play ends, and seconds later Tom Brady has his team back at the line. He gives a hand signal to his receiver, a tap to his offensive linemen. "Alabama! Alabama!" The ball is snapped. An outlet pass goes to Stevan Ridley, who rumbles to the Houston 40-yard line, another first down. Subs run in. Soon, the Patriots are back at the line. Except now, running back Shane Vereen is lined up out wide. The Texans are scrambling. Brady takes the snap and hits Vereen on a quick hitch. Vereen dips around linebacker Bradie James and then spins back inside, gaining 25 yards before he's done.
The next play is the same play, with the same personnel, with zero time for the defense to recover. The three receivers to Brady's left crisscross around defenders while Aaron Hernandez, who was lined up as a back to Brady's left, dashes to the flat. He makes the catch and takes it to Houston's 1-yard line. The same 11 Patriots sprint to the line, but Vereen is now in the backfield. The play is a run to the left, and he's into the end zone untouched. Touchdown, New England.
Since Tom Brady became the starting quarterback in New England 12 years ago, the Patriots have finished in the top 10 in scoring 11 times, but the way they've gotten there hasn't been nearly as consistent. In Brady's early years, Bill Belichick built his offense not around his quarterback, but rather to support him, with a steady supply of dependable receivers and a physical running game. It was when Brady moved from trusted game manager to outright star that he became the offense's centerpiece, and the need for reliable bolstering was replaced with the pursuit of a cast that could push him even further.