FOXBOROUGH - OK, so maybe he paper-cuts you to death. The object is to win, and Tom Brady wins.
With last night’s 16-13 overtime victory over the Oakland Raiders, this unflappable kid is now 12-3 as a Patriots starter. As the team heads into next Sunday’s AFC Championship game one thing is certain: The quarterback position will not be a concern.
If you don’t know by now, Tom Brady is not a gunslinger. He is not Sonny Jurgensen or Dan Marino or Kurt Warner. Only occasionally does he try to beat you by going over the top. Tom Brady is, like Bob Griese and Joe Montana, a spiritual descendant of Bart Starr. He is one part pigskin surgeon, one part pigskin shop foreman, and one part pigskin efficiency expert. He is a game manager who simply has the knack of making a little go a long way in a football game.
Last night was the biggest test of his career. It was his first playoff game, so the stakes were higher than usual. If he had pulled a gag job, the Patriots’ season would be over right now. And if he had pulled that gag job, it would have been easy to say that, hey, the kid had a great year, but we can’t come down too hard on him for messing up this game.
But Tom Brady doesn’t mess up games, at least not lately. The worst he ever plays is fair, and during this current seven-game winning streak he has demonstrated a precociousness that just about eliminates any thought that he can be exploited in any way by either veteran players or veteran defensive coordinators.
The measure of any athlete is what he does under pressure. In the most important game of his career, professional or otherwise, he did a major flip-flop, bouncing back from a bad first half (6 of 13, 74 yards, no TDs, and one interception) to construct a sensational second half and overtime. In those final two-plus periods he was 26 of 39 for 238 yards. Oh, and he also picked a rather propitious occasion to submit his first professional running touchdown when he scrambled in from 6 yards to cut an Oakland lead to 13-10 with 7:52 left in regulation.
“That’s what Tom does,” said coach Bill Belichick. “He might have a bad play here and there - he certainly had a couple tonight - but he always battles through.”
He had to battle through plenty of fan discontent. A fandom that had been expecting great things was not pleased when Brady and the Patriots struggled badly in the first half. Brady was heavily booed during the first half. It really wasn’t until Charlie Weis & Co. decided to go to a no-huddle offense that Brady found his rhythm.
Now Brady would have to admit that a quarterback is only one half of any successful passing play. Not all his throws were Kodak moments, but some of his receivers brought their A games out in the second half. You expect Troy Brown to make big plays, but he wasn’t the primary Brady target last night. How about East Boston’s Jermaine Wiggins latching onto 10 passes for 68 yards (it may not sound like great production, but in this game every yard counted), or David Patten grabbing eight for 107 yards? “David Patten had some huge catches,” Brady said. And Wiggins? “In a game like this, you make adjustments, and Jermaine was one of our adjustments,” Brady explained.
Trailing, 13-3, Brady and the Patriots took possession with 12:29 remaining in the fourth quarter. He drove them 67 yards in 10 plays, completing nine consecutive passes, to four different receivers, before improvising the aforementioned 6-yard scamper into the end zone. There was nothing dazzling about it, but it got the job done. The completions ranged from 3 to 14 yards, and this drive proved it isn’t always necessary to be a hero on third down because there wasn’t one third-down situation to ponder. It was just bing, bing, bing, etc., right down the field.
If talent and poise isn’t enough, Brady is also just plain lucky. All year long the ball has bounced his way. He never seems to lose a fumble, and last night he received the biggest break of all when he should have been charged with a fumble that would have lost the game.
On second and 10 at the Oakland 42 with 1:43 remaining and the Patriots trailing by 3 (13-10), Brady was blindsided by a blitzing Charles Woodson as he was pulling his arm down on an obvious - that’s o-b-v-i-o-u-s - pump fake, the ball was knocked loose, and Greg Biekert recovered. That would have been the ballgame.
But the call was overturned on review. Brady got the ball back, and on the next play he hit Patten for 13 yards. Adam Vinatieri eventually tied the game with a clutch 45-yard field goal. The Patriots won the toss, and Brady took them to the promised land, or close enough, by completing seven passes on the drive that set up Vinatieri with the winning 23-yarder.
Talent, luck, and charisma are part of the Brady package. You can also throw in intelligence and glibness. The Brady saga is a too-good-to-be-true tale, but it is happening, and we don’t even know how many additional chapters there will be. One more, anyway.