By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO--The Patriots are 6-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC East now heading into Week 9. Yet Tom Brady is hardly satisfied.
"I'd prefer us to be playing a lot better than we're playing,'' he said on Wednesday.
New England is actually flying a bit under the radar because of relatively low preseason expectations by the media. Brady could care less. His focus isn't on predictions or perceptions but on what happens on that field every week.
"Maybe we'd get more attention if we were playing more consistently as an offense and scoring more points and being more effective on third down and in the red area. I think we've got to find ways to play better football as a team.
"Our record is what it is and I don't think that's going to do anything at the end of the day. I don't think our goal is to win six games this year . . . I think what we're trying to do is make improvements."
The quarterback's comments should rip a hole in any "win-is-a-win" happy hot air balloons that are floating around New England. The Patriots haven't won a game decisively since beating Miami 41-14 in Week 3. They've displayed the ability to battle back from behind and cling to a lead, but take it from Tom: The Pats look good; they need to be better.
"I'm not in a great mood coming in here every day," said Brady. "I think there are plenty of things that we have to do to get to work and you try to keep the pressure on the younger players and hopefully that leads to better execution and pressure on the older players, too.''
Brady echoed coach Bill Belichick in seeming less put off by Cleveland's 2-5 record than impressed by the Browns' 30-17 win over New Orleans before their bye week.
"They're a real good team. They've got a good scheme. They've got tough players guys that fit the scheme really well. When they get things going, they're really tough. We've got to find ways to counter that.''
Logan Mankins should help that cause. The Pro Bowl guard returned to the team Tuesday after an eight-week holdout and Brady was delighted to have him back.
"He's such a great guy,'' Brady said. "He's a great player. He's coming in with a great attitude. I've had a chance to talk to him over the last few months. You can never have too many great football players or too many great teammates, so it's great to have him back."
Not even Mankins knows how smoothly his transition back to active status will be. He is unquestionably missed: Brady has been sacked 12 times in seven games this season after being pulled down just 16 times in 2009. Though that stat doesn't rest solely on the broad shoulders of Mankins, the O-liner is definitely a difference maker.
Brady's take on the timetable? "I'm not sure. We'll have to wait and see. I hope fast."
But another part is personal.
"Everyone is excited to have Mankins back. He's friends with all of us, so as I said, over the course of the last few months, there's been plenty of interaction with the players,'' Brady said. "Everyone kind of knew he was coming in today and was just excited to see him and greet him and welcome him back. He's excited to get out there on the field and start playing football, because that's really what he loves to do."
Some of that interaction with Mankins has involved the quarterback. If there is any resentment toward Mankins for holding out while his team was in the trenches for eight weeks, nobody is talking about it. On the contrary, Brady said he had concern for both his teammate's "well-being and his mindset."
Part of the equation is empathy.
All athletes deal with contract negotiations. Brady believes that his 11 seasons in the NFL have given him perspective and maybe make it easier to support a guy battling the business side of the game. And "sharing insight" and the "awareness" with the rest of his team that's gained from his experienced is all part of his role as captain.
"When youre younger and when you're going through it the first time, I know for me, it was pretty tough early on," Brady said. ?But then as you see different things happen and players come and go and coaches come and go, it's just kind of the way it is.
"I think from each individual's standpoint, you're just focusing on your job, what you need to do, how you can contribute, how you can be a leader, how you can bring energy to the team and then let everything else take care of itself."
His words carried some weight and were slightly atypical for a pre-practice Wednesday at Gillette. But in light of Logan Mankins' return and Randy Moss' trade from the Patriots (and waive by the Vikings not long after), they were appropriate.
Just not surprisng. Brady's a smart guy and the scars on his knee are permanent reminders of how quickly things can change in the NFL.
"You just worry about what you have to do and if you don't, you're the one that's going to be out of a job."