It’s gridiron Groundhog Day for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Here they are again in January hosting a home playoff game after enjoying a first-round bye, visions of cradling that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy in their arms, silver satisfaction within their reach.
They’ve been here before. We’ve been here before. But there is now an enhanced exigence to each of these playoff runs because NFL reality and human biology dictate the Brady and Belichick partnership is closer to its end than its beginning.
To lose to the Indianapolis Colts Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Divisional playoffs would be not only an epic disappointment, but an epic waste of precious time for the Patriots.
Even the most fealty-filled Patriots fan would have to concede that after this playoff run, the team, realistically, has four more shots of winning a championship with the canonized coupling of Brady as the franchise quarterback and Belichick as the coach.
Belichick might not able to work the clock in his car (join the club, Bill), but he knows that time stops for no one, not even Brady. In his 14th season, the hourglass of Brady’s career now has more sand at the bottom than the top. He will be 37 at the start of the 2014 season, and is under contract through 2017.
At that time, Brady will be 40 years-old. The oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl is John Elway, who was 38 years, 217 days when he led the Broncos to their second straight title in Super Bowl XXXIII in January of 1999.
This isn’t a perfect Patriots team, but it’s one that is resilient, less reliant on illuminating the scoreboard like Times Square to win, and good enough to take advantage of a middling AFC to take yet another shot at Super Bowl glory.
The NFC is the big-boy conference this season, but if there is any team that knows anything can happen in the Super Bowl it’s the Patriots, who have been on opposite ends of two of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
The drive to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only players to quarterback four Super Bowl champion teams fuels Brady. As one of Brady’s retinue once said, they don’t put paychecks in the Hall of Fame.
In 2011 at an Under Armour event, Brady said he couldn’t imagine not winning another Super Bowl, which may be why he is usually loath to discuss the subject of his athletic biological clock.
But he did refer to the urgency of the playoffs Tuesday in his weekly State of Quarterback address.
“These are the moments you dream about — to be in the NFL playoffs, and you have a chance with [seven] other teams to be the last team standing,” said Brady. “It’s why we work hard. It’s why every guy puts a lot out there. You sacrifice a lot of things. A lot of people would die to be in our positions.
“I don’t think you take those things for granted. I think you cherish those and understand the opportunity that’s ahead. It’s different than a normal week. There is no, ‘Hey, we’ll get them tomorrow. We’ll talk about the corrections on Monday.’ You have one opportunity to get it right, and that’s all you can ask for as an athlete.”
Brady’s first career NFL start was against the Colts. It came on Sept. 30, 2001. He was 13 of 23 for 168 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions in a 44-13 victory. He was 24 years old. That’s the same age Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will be on Saturday, when he faces the Patriots.
It’s hard to believe that’s possible.
Brady will make his 25th postseason start on Saturday, breaking a tie with Brett Favre for the most in NFL playoff history. He is the winningest quarterback in NFL postseason history with a 17-7 record. But he is just 5-5 in the postseason since the 2007 season.
However, all the injuries, adversity, and early-season offensive inefficacy have made these Patriots a team better equipped for the challenges of the playoffs than prior editions. They have more road to victory than just Brady Pass.
The Patriots won their last two games of the season against Baltimore and Buffalo with Brady throwing for a total of 294 yards, as the Patriots played like the famous bulls of Pamplona, running over everything in their sights.
Being the 30th-ranked run defense in the NFL, as the Patriots are, isn’t ideal, but in today’s NFL I’ll take that over being the 31st-ranked pass defense, which the Patriots were in 2011.
The Colts are not the sacrificial lambs that have been served up in Foxborough each of the last two years in the Divisional round — the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos and the house of cards Houston Texans.
Indianapolis reached this game on merit and mettle, staging the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history, rallying from a 38-10 third-quarter deficit to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44.
The Colts recorded the fewest penalties (66) and fewest turnovers (14) in the NFL during the regular season. They scored wins over San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver.
But Foxborough should be their final destination this season.
The Patriots already have left too many chances on the table — losing the 2006 AFC title game in Indy, which was the real Super Bowl that year; losing Super Bowl XLII and a perfect season to the Giants; going one-and-done at the hands — and mouths — of the Jets in 2010; not being able to hold on to a Brady pass or the lead in a Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants.
How many more kicks at the (tomato) can do the Patriots have left with both Brady and Belichick, as we know them?
Fewer than we would like to admit.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.