If Tom Brady is going to win a seventh Super Bowl this year, he’s going to have to earn it.
Just to get to the NFC Championship game, Brady had to outduel Drew Brees on the road last Sunday. Now he has to go on the road again this Sunday and face Aaron Rodgers.
Those are two future first-ballot Hall of Famers and Super Bowl champions, and in Rodgers, the likely 2020 NFL MVP. If Brady does get to the Super Bowl, he could face another champion and MVP in Patrick Mahomes.
It’s hard to make it through a postseason run without facing an elite quarterback. But how does this year’s quarterback gauntlet compare with Brady’s previous 18 playoff runs with the Patriots?
Here is a ranking, from toughest to easiest. Not included are the three years Brady went one-and-done: 2009 (Joe Flacco), 2010 (Mark Sanchez), and 2019 (Ryan Tannehill).
1. 2004 (won Super Bowl)
vs. Peyton Manning, at Ben Roethlisberger, vs. Donovan McNabb
To get his third ring and pull off back-to-back titles, Brady had to get through two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a pretty good one in McNabb.
The 2004 season was peak Manning; he was MVP and set then-NFL records for touchdown passes (49) and passer rating (121.1). Roethlisberger was a rookie and raw as a passer, but still finished the regular season with a 13-0 record and impressive 98.1 passer rating (plus, Brady had to beat him on the road).
McNabb will never reach the Hall of Fame, but 2004 was the best season of his career. He went 13-2 as a starter in the regular season with 31 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions, and a 104.7 passer rating.
2. 2018 (won Super Bowl)
vs. Philip Rivers, at Patrick Mahomes, vs. Jared Goff
Not only was Mahomes the MVP, but Brady outdueled him on the road in arguably the most hostile environment in the NFL. Rivers is a borderline Hall of Famer who was still fantastic in 2018, with 32 touchdown passess against 12 interceptions.
The one holding back this group is Goff, who actually had very good numbers. But Goff is a system quarterback who was exposed by Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl. Brady needed to put up only 13 points to win his sixth Lombardi Trophy.
3. 2006 (lost AFC Championship)
vs. Chad Pennington, at Philip Rivers, at Peyton Manning
Brady navigated a tricky playoff bracket with one of the least explosive teams in the Patriots dynasty. In the wild-card round, he took down Pennington, who had solid numbers and stayed healthy in 2006. In the divisional round, Brady went on the road and upset Rivers, who was excellent in his first season as a starter and had the Chargers at 14-2.
Brady was felled in the AFC Championship game by Manning, who wasn’t an All-Pro in 2006 but still was at the height of his career and won that year’s Super Bowl.
4. 2020 (TBD)
at Taylor Heinicke, at Drew Brees, at Aaron Rodgers
That’s three straight road games, two against future Hall of Famers, with Rodgers playing maybe the best football of his career. But Brady’s first game came against a practice squad quarterback in Heinicke (who actually played quite well, all things considered). And Brees was a shell of himself physically, and is likely to retire this offseason. He had good regular-season numbers but wheezed to the finish line.
If Brady beats Rodgers and faces Mahomes in the Super Bowl, this year’s run will climb to No. 1.
5. 2001 (won Super Bowl)
vs. Rich Gannon, at Kordell Stewart, vs. Kurt Warner
Brady’s first Super Bowl win came against a Hall of Famer in Warner, who was MVP in 2001. Even more impressive was that the game was played indoors, where Warner thrived.
To get to the Super Bowl, Brady first took down a savvy veteran in Gannon, who was finishing his third of four straight Pro Bowl seasons in 2001, and was one year away from being MVP.
The one soft spot came in the AFC Championship game against Stewart, who was never much of a passer. But the game was on the road, and 2001 was Stewart’s best year as a starter.
6. 2013 (lost AFC Championship)
vs. Andrew Luck, at Peyton Manning
Brady cruised past Luck, then a budding superstar in his second season, in the wild-card round. But the Patriots had a decimated roster and no firepower in the AFC Championship game loss to Manning, who won his fifth and final MVP that season and also set records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477).
7. 2014 (won Super Bowl)
vs. Joe Flacco, vs. Andrew Luck, vs. Russell Wilson
Brady didn’t face any elite quarterbacks in his fourth Super Bowl run, but he got three strong ones. Flacco, only two years removed from his own legendary Super Bowl run, had a career-best 27 touchdown passes and second-best 91.0 passer rating.
Luck had a monster year with 40 touchdown passes, though his team was a joke and got trampled in the infamous Deflategate game. Wilson was still a bit raw as a passer, but had won 36 games in his first three seasons and was coming off a Super Bowl win.
8. 2003 (won Super Bowl)
vs. Steve McNair, vs. Peyton Manning, vs. Jake Delhomme
Brady had to take down both of the NFL’s co-MVPs in his second Super Bowl run. First he took down a tough Titans team led by McNair, who earned his only MVP and one of his three Pro Bowl berths that season. In the AFC Championship game, Brady got his first postseason win over Manning, who won the first of his five MVP awards in 2003. The Super Bowl matchup against Delhomme certainly won’t go down as an iconic matchup, but Delhomme had a few decent seasons for the Panthers.
9. 2016 (won Super Bowl)
vs. Brock Osweiler, vs. Ben Roethlisberger, vs. Matt Ryan
The fact that Brady faced Houston’s Osweiler in the first round and didn’t play on the road until the Super Bowl holds this group down. But Brady had a tough closing stretch en route to his fifth championship. In the conference championship game, he defeated Roethlisberger, who earned one of his sixth Pro Bowl berths in 2016. In the Super Bowl, Brady defeated Ryan, who is a borderline Hall of Famer and was the 2016 MVP.
10. 2007 (lost Super Bowl)
vs. David Garrard, vs. Philip Rivers, vs. Eli Manning
Brady didn’t have to face any elite quarterbacks in the unsuccessful march to 19-0. But he drew two borderline Hall of Famers in Rivers and Manning, and a decent enough quarterback in Garrard, who made a Pro Bowl in 2009.
11. 2011 (lost Super Bowl)
vs. Tim Tebow, vs. Joe Flacco, vs. Eli Manning
Manning was a Pro Bowler in 2011 and Flacco was an above-average starter, and both seemed to save their best performances for the Patriots. But Tebow has to be one of the five worst quarterbacks to ever start a playoff game.
12. 2012 (lost AFC Championship)
vs. Matt Schaub, vs. Joe Flacco
Flacco wasn’t a Pro Bowler in 2012 — shockingly, he was never voted one in his career — but he went on an all-time run in that year’s playoffs, with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in four games. Schaub had a good season for Houston in 2012, throwing for 4,008 yards and earning his second and final Pro Bowl berth.
13. 2015 (lost AFC Championship)
vs. Alex Smith, at Peyton Manning
Smith was a solid game manager in 2015 but didn’t have much firepower in Kansas City. And by 2015 Manning was a broken-down shell of himself. But a bizarre Week 17 loss to the Dolphins dropped the Patriots out of home-field advantage, and it cost them in the AFC Championship game at Denver.
14. 2005 (lost Divisional Round)
vs. Byron Leftwich, at Jake Plummer
Leftwich had his best season as a starter, but he still had just 193 passing yards per game and an 89.3 passer rating. Plummer earned his only career Pro Bowl berth in 2005 and was a solid game manager for most of his career.
15. 2017 (lost Super Bowl)
vs. Marcus Mariota, vs. Blake Bortles, vs. Nick Foles
By far the easiest run of Brady’s career. I still can’t believe that Brady and Bill Belichick lost a Super Bowl to Foles and Doug Pederson.