Tom Brady’s success this year is truly unprecedented. No quarterback in NFL history other than Brady has led his team to a Super Bowl after age 40, let alone 43.
But take Brady’s age out of the equation, and his postseason run with the Buccaneers is actually quite precedented. It is strikingly similar to the Patriots’ 2018 season that ended in Brady’s sixth Super Bowl ring.
Both Brady teams got to the Super Bowl with an 11-5 regular-season record. Both defeated the likely MVP in Week 6 (in 2018, it was Patrick Mahomes; in 2020, Aaron Rodgers). And both teams traveled a bumpy road to the Super Bowl. Neither the 2018 Patriots nor the 2020 Bucs looked like a Super Bowl contender until the postseason began.
“We were at 7-5 seven games ago, not feeling great,” Brady said after Sunday’s NFC Championship game. “We felt like we needed to find our rhythm, and played four great games down the stretch the last quarter of the season. After that, it was all bonus.”
The parallels between the 2018 Patriots and 2020 Bucs start at about the midseason point. Both teams suffered embarrassing losses that gave the impression they weren’t built for deep postseason runs.
In 2018, it was the Patriots’ 34-10 loss at Tennessee in Week 10 that left them feeling dejected and punchless. The Patriots dropped to 7-3, and that loss, combined with early-season blowout losses to the Jaguars and Lions, gave the appearance that the Patriots’ dynasty was over.
“Hopefully, there’s more urgency as we go forward,” Brady said after the Titans loss. “We’re not doing enough good things offensively. It’s really been 10 weeks.”
This season, it was a 38-3 loss to the Saints in Week 9 on national television that left the Bucs wounded and reeling. The loss dropped them to 6-3, with two bad losses to the Saints, and crushed the Bucs’ hopes of winning the NFC South. Brady had never won a Super Bowl coming from a wild-card spot.
“This was pretty embarrassing from the start of the game,” Barrett said after the game. “It was just a collapse. A total team collapse.”
The 2018 Patriots and 2020 Bucs didn’t produce immediate turnarounds, either. The Patriots suffered two uncharacteristic, gut-wrenching losses in December: a 34-33 loss to the Dolphins on the “Miami Miracle,” and a 17-10 loss at Pittsburgh the next week that dropped them to 9-5.
Not many people were thinking Super Bowl after that loss. It had been nine seasons since the Patriots had lost that many games.
“Obviously, we aren’t playing well enough to win,” Brady said after the Steelers loss. “Too many opportunities that we could do something with it, and we just don’t.”
This year’s Bucs also continued to lose; consecutive 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs dropped them to 7-5 entering their Week 13 bye.
“Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said after the Chiefs loss. “You just don’t throw guys out there with names. You’ve got to practice. You’ve got to learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time.”
Both teams used the final stretch of the season to work out the kinks — yet nobody really took notice, since both teams beat up on patsies.
In 2018, the Patriots ran for 273 yards in a 24-12 win over the Bills, then finished the regular season with a 38-3 drubbing of the Jets.
“Fifteen penalties in Pittsburgh — you don’t win many games doing that,” coach Bill Belichick said after that season. “We got some things straightened out there and played well in the next two games against Buffalo and the Jets.”
This year, the Bucs emerged from their bye and finished the season with four straight wins, three by double digits. They averaged 37 points in those four games, and Brady threw 12 touchdown passes and one interception in wins over the Vikings, Falcons (twice), and Lions.
But it was hard to know what to make of the Bucs. None of those wins came against a playoff team, and two of the opponents had already fired their coach.
“We self-scout every week, but we did a major one [during the bye],” Arians said Thursday. “Looked at the running game, passing game, everything we were doing, and simplified some things.”
Finally, both Brady teams hit their stride right as the postseason began.
The 2018 Patriots morphed into a power-rushing, I-formation team that bulldozed its way to the Lombardi Trophy. They dominated the Chargers, shocked the world with an overtime road victory over the Chiefs (as 3-point underdogs), then shut down the high-flying Rams in the Super Bowl.
They weren’t the best team for most of the season, but they were when it mattered most.
“I’ll tell you this: It was the most satisfying year I’ve ever been a part of,” Rob Gronkowski said then. “It’s just surreal.
“We went through life this year. We figured it out, we found our identity. We weren’t making big, flashy plays all the time — once in a while, but we stuck together, grinded, ran the ball, now we’re Super Bowl champions.”
This year’s Bucs are on a similar path. They took down Washington, avenged their two losses to the Saints, and surprised most of the football world with a win over the Packers at Lambeau Field (as 3-point underdogs).
After riding the roller coaster for most of the season, the Bucs roll into next week’s Super Bowl having won seven straight games.
Brady and Gronk now hope that the 2020 season ends with that 2018 feeling.
“We had some highs and lows in the season where things at times looked a little grim,” Bucs GM Jason Licht said. “We needed to pull together, but we never lost our confidence.
“Looking back on some of the things we talked about, you do kind of want to pinch yourselves a little bit, saying, ‘Wow, this really did happen.’ ”