Tom Brady has carried the Patriots for more than a decade, helping make the team one of the premier franchises in all of pro sports. As the quarterback ages, the question now becomes, can the rest of the team help carry the quarterback for the next several seasons and keep the Patriots among the NFL's elite?

The matter creates something of a conundrum for the franchise. The bulk of the team is young and improving, but the most important player is older and past his prime. How does the franchise balance those two facts?

There is no way anyone can reasonably expect Brady to play like the Brady of 2007, when he established personal-bests in numerous categories as he led the Pats to the first 16-0 regular-season record in league history. Brady did that at age 30, precisely the time when athletes in most sports are expected to peak.

To his credit, Brady has kept himself in good shape and continues to produce great numbers as his team has maintained its position among the powers in the game. Brady has said he hopes to continue playing to age 40 and beyond. There is every reason to expect that the New England offense, the best in the NFL this year, will not continue to produce good numbers as long as Brady is at the controls.

However, there are signs the normal downhill trend has begun.

It went pretty much unnoticed as the Pats made a run toward another Super Bowl appearance, but Brady's numbers declined in 2012. His completion percentage of 63 percent was excellent by most standards, except perhaps his own. It was his lowest percentage since 2006. The percentage of his passes that went for touchdowns dropped to 5.3, his lowest number since 2009. And his average yards per pass was 7.6, his lowest since 2008.

Perhaps more significantly, he turned in his weakest performances over the final month, the time when he tries to peak. He completed 58.5 percent of his passes in December and averaged 7.0 yards per pass. His touchdown-to-interception ratio always has been outstanding and was again for most of this season. But Brady's lowest ratio in that department came in December when he had 10 touchdowns with five interceptions.