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Alex Speier

Where does Tom Brady rank for comeback wins?

Tom Brady has 200 career victories.
Tom Brady has 200 career victories.AP

Tom Brady’s 200th career victory last Sunday offered an apt reminder of why he now stands one win from the status as the winningest quarterback in NFL history.

In a fashion that has characterized so much of his career – including the early-career signature performance on the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI – Brady inherited a game-on-the-line situation and turned it into a win. His nearly flawless march down the field against the Jets transformed a 17-16 deficit into a 22-17 victory.

The 49th-career game-winning drive by Brady in the fourth quarter or overtime contributed to a perception 16 seasons in the making. When the 39-year-old has a chance to decide the fate of a game, with his team either tied or trailing by a single score (up to eight points), success seems as close to certain as it’s ever been for any quarterback in NFL history.

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But is that perception accurate? Is Brady, as the quarterback who has overseen more wins than any other in NFL history, likewise the best quarterback ever in the game’s decisive moments?

Brady’s 49 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime rank third, behind Peyton Manning’s 56 and Dan Marino’s 51. Marino’s total appears even more impressive given that it represents a higher percentage of his career wins (33 percent) than Brady (25 percent) or Manning (28 percent).

That said, game-winning drives alone tell an incomplete story. After all, Brady has presided over an enormous number of comfortable victories during his Patriots tenure. His opportunities for fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives might be fewer than they’d have been on a more mediocre team like so many iterations of Marino’s Dolphins.

It’s therefore worth examining more closely how well Brady has performed in situations where he had a chance to tie a game or give his team a lead in the fourth quarter and comparing his work in such situations to those of his peers.

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Pro-Football-Reference.com allows for situational data searches based on the stage of the game and the game score dating to 1994 – the year that the two-point conversion was introduced, thus making an eight-point game one that required a team to amass just one scoring drive to at least tie the game.

In that time, Brady has an 85.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter or overtime of games where the Patriots were tied or trailed by no more than eight points. That’s a strong mark, though it masks a considerable difference in his performance in games depending on whether a touchdown or a field goal would suffice to change the Patriots’ game state (turning a deficit into a tie or lead, or turning a tie into a lead).

In the fourth quarter and/or overtime of games where a field goal would either tie the score or give his team the lead, Brady has a spectacular 94.2 rating. In games where his team trailed by four to eight points, that mark drops to a more pedestrian 75.8 rating.

Manning proved very solid regardless of whether his team needed a late touchdown or field goal. His 83.0 rating when his team trailed by four to eight points in the fourth quarter was almost identical to his 82.1 mark in games that were tied or separated by no more than three points. In other words, Brady has been the better quarterback in the tightest of games, while Manning did a better job of marching his team into the end zone when a field goal wouldn’t wipe out a deficit.

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The performances of Manning and Brady in need-a-score fourth-quarter situations were/are vastly better than that of the man who stands just behind both of them in all-time victories. While Brett Favre amassed 199 career wins, when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter or overtime, Favre at times seemed more inclined to deliver throws to his opponents than his teammates.

The best when it matters most
Passer rating in fourth quarter and OT when tied or trailing by 8 points or fewer (1994-2016)
Quarterback 4 to 8 points Up to 3 points Up to 8 points
Drew Brees 102.0 85 92.8
Tom Brady 75.8 94.2 85.3
Peyton Manning 83.0 82.1 82.5
Brett Favre* 64.6 65.1 64.5
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

He accumulated 26 touchdowns against 47 interceptions, posting mid-60s passer ratings whether in need of a field goal or touchdown from 1994 through the end of his career. (Pro-Football-Reference data is not available for Favre’s performance in such situations in 1992 or 1993, his first two seasons as a starter.) One would be hard-pressed to make a case for Favre as one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks of all time, a notion underscored by the fact that he had game-winning drives in just under 14 percent of his career starts.

Interestingly, a case can be made that the greatest game-on-the-line performer in this NFL generation is neither Brady nor Manning but instead Drew Brees. Brees has 41 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, posting a 102.0 rating when his team has trailed by four to eight points. Even with a more modest 85.0 rating with his team tied or trailing by three, Brees’ passer rating of 92.8 in the fourth quarter or overtime when tied or trailing by no more than eight points is still meaningfully better than the marks posted by his more renowned peers. (Of course, Brees has benefited from spending his career in the frequently favorable weather conditions both in his home stadiums and divisions.)

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What to take from this? Brady’s place as the winningest signal-caller in NFL history is beyond question. While his 201st win will separate him from Manning, his best-of-all-time .766 career winning percentage even more dramatically encapsulates his greatness (Roger Staubach is second at .741, with Joe Montana at .711).

Whether Brady is or is not the greatest late-game quarterback in NFL history is a more complicated question. At the least, he’s in the conversation, both thanks to his statistical profile and his unmatched claim to four game-winning drives in Super Bowls.

But, in many ways, he’s rendered the question of his place as a fourth-quarter performer irrelevant by putting his team in position to cruise to wins more often than anyone else who lines up under center.

Clutch performers
*-Drive in fourth quarter or OT  when tied or trailing that resulted in decisive score of a victory.
Quarterback Wins Game-Winning Drives* % of wins via game-winning drive
Peyton Manning 200 56 28%
Dan Marino 155 51 33%
Tom Brady 200 49 25%
John Elway 162 46 28%
Brett Favre 199 45 23%
Drew Brees 135 41 30%
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.