One thing about New England's Tom Brady that makes him a candidate for best active quarterback is that he plays successful NFL football without a cast of great pass receivers.

As the Chicago Bears will see Sunday, the only first-class receiver in the Patriot lineup, Troy Brown, moves around on an injured leg.

In the other pass-catching positions, the Patriots are too slow, too inexperienced, or too deficient in NFL talent.

Yet in Week 8, Brady passed for 310 yards, completing 23 of 27, to beat former teammate Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo, 38-7.

On the game's decisive plays, when none of Brady's wide receivers could break into the open, he threw the ball to some of his backs instead, or to tight ends. In these circumstances, it was the game of the year for a passer in this league.

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Belichick Keeps Passer Passing

FOR THE PATRIOT coach, Bill Belichick, the Buffalo game was a coaching masterpiece. He won because he kept Brady at it. He kept him throwing the ball because of his faith that Brady could find somebody open. Along with everybody else, Belichick could see that New England's wide receivers were mired in the Buffalo defense. But last year, Belichick had handpicked Brady over Bledsoe, and he knows he was right about that. Secondly, Belichick won because he knows defensive football so well. In a must-win game, this is the guy you want in charge of your defense.

The Patriots, however, might not have enough pass-receiving class to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Their problems were best illustrated whenever flanker Brown was running a crossing pattern. Typically, when throwing to Brown on such a play, Brady threw the ball too far in front of him. In other words, he remembered Brown's old pre-injury speed and couldn't adjust. Few passers have ever been able to adjust in such a predicament. The right timing with a good receiver is hard enough to get in the first place. To disremember all that is beyond human. Even so, Brady continues to stand out.

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Bledsoe's Receivers Much Better than Brady's

THE DIFFERENCE IN class between New England's receivers and Buffalo's resembles the difference between college and pro ball. On the Buffalo team, Bledsoe can choose between wide receivers who have been the two most productive in the league for most of the last two months.

They are split end Eric Moulds, who compares with any receiver in football except San Francisco's Terrell Owens, and flanker Peerless Price. Moreover, fullback Larry Centers, who plays a key role in Buffalo's pass-pattern network, compares with any pass-catching fullback in football.

Bledsoe, in other words, had a large advantage over Brady in downfield help. Despite Bledsoe's excellence as a passer, his fast start in Buffalo this season has been in large part attributable to the excellence he found there in the receiving positions — to his obvious surprise — following the mediocrity he had put up with in New England while losing his job to Brady.

Football fans and critics measuring one passer against another these days — as everyone does on talk shows and in print — are prone to overlook the differences in supporting casts that quarterbacks all have. Thus, one of Hall of Famer Joe Montana's assets was Jerry Rice, who at age 40 is still better than most of his peers. One of quarterback Peyton Manning's assets is the smooth Indianapolis wide receiver, Marvin Harrison. And so on.

Brady had a guy like that last year, Troy Brown, but he doesn't really have him now. In the passer ratings, Brady rates quite a few extra points because of whom he has to throw to.

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Running Backs' Support Counts Also

IN RUNNING-BACK comparisons as well, football's fans and critics might give more weight to the differences in supporting casts. In San Francisco, for example, the alternating featured backs, Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, good as they are, benefit hugely from the excellence of teammates Jeff Garcia, the quarterback, and Owens.