TAMPA — Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's supporting cast has changed dramatically. Gone from last season are his top five weapons:
• Receiver Wes Welker signed with the Broncos.
• Tight end Aaron Hernandez faces a murder charge.
• Receiver Brandon Lloyd retired and now acts.
• Running back Danny Woodhead signed with the Chargers.
• Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first two games after offseason surgeries on his forearm and back but might play Sunday against the Bucs.
But while Brady isn't racking up the fantasy points, the three-time Super Bowl champion found a way to win two close games.
"Super quarterback," Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson said. "It's like, 'What can't this guy do?' He's very smart, can read a defense, put a ball on a dime. He's Tom Brady for a reason, and we're really going to have to be on top of our game."
Said Bucs coach Greg Schiano: "He's a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer."
Last week against another likely Hall-of-Famer, the Bucs sacked Drew Brees four times and intercepted him twice. But he led New Orleans to a 16-14 win thanks to a last-second field goal. And that's exactly what Brady is capable of in Foxborough, where the Patriots have won 31 of their past 34 games.
"It's a huge challenge, much like when you play Peyton Manning or Drew Brees," Schiano said. "It's so demanding on your defense because if you make one mistake, it's usually going to be very, very costly."
Brady, 36, in his 14th season, doesn't have the veteran targets like Manning and Brees, especially with a hip injury sidelining receiver Danny Amendola. The Patriots rely on their running game with Stevan Ridley, but his main option has been receiver Julian Edelman, who is tied with Houston's Andre Johnson for the league lead with 20 catches.
Edelman likely will match up often with Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis, whom Brady says "doesn't have any weaknesses."
"I've never played against anyone as good as him," said Brady, whose struggles this season include ranking 31st out of 33 starters in completion percentage (52.7); Josh Freeman is 33rd at 45.3. "There are some great corners I've been able to play against: Champ Bailey, Patrick Surtain … Charles Woodson. But Darrelle is certainly at the top.
"I don't think I've completed many balls on his side of the field very often."
Revis faced Brady 11 times while with the Jets, intercepting two passes and helping knock the Patriots out of the playoffs in January 2011. "We had our battles," Revis said. "He's a tough sucker."
What makes Brady particularly tough, Schiano says, is his "flexibility to exploit someone's weaknesses."
In the first two games, the Bucs' has been tight ends. The Saints' Jimmy Graham caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, and ex-Buc Kellen Winslow had 10 catches for 95 yards and a TD for the Jets in Week 1.
While Schiano said there was no common thread, the addition of Gronkowski could pose trouble. "Whether it's Rob or the other tight ends, we have to make sure that we always have them accounted for, which scheme-wise we do; sometimes more tightly than other times," he said.
The Bucs' joint practices with New England in the preseason helped gather insight on Brady and the Patriots' tempo, linebacker Lavonte David said. Linebacker Mason Foster gleaned how Brady is great at getting defenders to move with his eyes and subtle pump fakes, then firing the ball behind them. "Knowing that guy's at quarterback," David said, "anything can happen."