Tom Brady has looked more like an average quarterback rather than a three-time Super Bowl winner who is fourth in NFL history in career touchdown passes. And maybe for good reason.
He began the season without his three favorite targets from last season -- wide receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Then he lost the receiver who was signed in free agency to replace Welker -- Danny Amendola -- for four games because of injury.
All of a sudden, the Patriots quarterback has looked more normal than great, more human than hero.
In his past four games, Brady has thrown only two touchdowns, been intercepted four times and sacked 16 times. In each of those games, he has not had a passer rating higher than 74.7. In a 16-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that began the four-game stretch, Brady had his NFL-record streak of 52 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass ended.
But, despite numbers that look more like Brady Quinn and playing with two rookie receivers, Brady has the Patriots back atop the AFC East with a 6-2 record, on track to win their 10th division title in 11 years.
"That's what makes the great ones great," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's found a way to win football games that are close and with guys no one has ever heard of. You admire someone like that."
The Patriots have been involved in six games this season decided by seven points or fewer, winning four of them. Last week, they came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to beat the Miami Dolphins, 27-17.
But, for a team that scored 30 or more points in 22 games since 2011, the Patriots have reached that 30-something number just once this season -- a 30-27 home victory against the New Orleans Saints three weeks ago.
"Are they winning? Yes," said cornerback William Gay, who leads the Steelers with five passes defensed. "It's the same thing to me. They got new guys, but once you have the same core people -- on the offensive line, the quarterback, the head coach -- it's tough to be different."
Some of Brady's struggles can be attributed to the learning curve of rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. They have combined for 49 catches, 658 yards and six touchdowns, but Brady has had to endure their mistakes and dropped passes.
Dobson, a second-round choice from Marshall, has seven dropped passes among his 26 catches, according to Pro Football Focus. His drop percentage of 21.21 is second highest in the league. Thompkins, an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati, has four drops among his 23 catches.
Compare that to the Steelers' two receivers -- Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Each has been credited with just one drop by PFF. Brown, who leads the NFL with 56 catches, ranks third in the league with a catch percentage of 98.25; Sanders is sixth at 96.87 percent.
Only two receivers, Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Baltimore's Torrey Smith, have not been credited with a dropped pass in 2013.
Still, Dobson made the big catch against the Dolphins -- a 14-yard touchdown from Brady that started their second-half, 24-point comeback.