While Tom Brady spent plenty of time celebrating the merits of his pajamas in the buildup to the AFC divisional game Saturday night, once on the field against Houston, he offered a showcase for the most called-upon security blanket he’s enjoyed during his storied playoff history.
Julian Edelman has emerged as The Target, the receiver whose number Brady has called more than any other. No one — not Troy Brown or Deion Branch or Wes Welker, not Randy Moss or Rob Gronkowski — has seen so many Brady passes directed at him with such frequency in the playoffs. Indeed, no one in NFL history has been so frequent a component of a passing offense in January.
In the Patriots’ 34-16 victory, Edelman — whose night started immediately when he grabbed a 6-yard pass on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage — hauled in eight catches on Brady’s 13 targets to him. Such marks represented enormous receiving numbers for most, but standard fare for Edelman.
The 30-year-old receiver now has seven straight playoff games in which he’s caught at least seven passes. That is the most in NFL playoff history — and it’s not close. The streak is three games clear of Wes Welker’s four straight games with seven or more catches.
Edelman has now been targeted at least nine times in each of his last eight playoff games. (Targets started being tracked as a stat in 1992.) No one else in the Super Bowl era has such a streak of more than two games.
Edelman has 76 career playoff receptions, most in Patriots history (surpassing Welker, who had 69) and tied for the eighth most in NFL history. If the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl this season, he has a chance to climb as high as second all-time in playoff receptions, with Reggie Wayne’s 93 catches now in sight and only Jerry Rice’s 151 receptions beyond reach this year.
The size of Edelman’s workload has been a constant of the Patriots’ last four playoff runs. But on Saturday, the receiver showcased not just his reliability but also his versatility.
While he usually creates a pocket inside of traffic near the line of scrimmage, on Saturday, with the Texans often rushing just three players, Edelman became a threat on the outside and downfield, helping him to a career playoff high of 137 yards.
“Jules did a great job. He always does,” said Brady. “He’s a huge playmaker for us and his ability to create separation and make plays down the field, he did a bunch of that [Saturday night].”
Edelman accomplished much of that while the game remained in question. Late in the second quarter, with a gasping-for-air Patriots defense having spent less than five minutes on the sideline and the Texans trailing just, 14-13, New England faced a pivotal third and 9 from its 33-yard line. A punt would have created the possibility of the Patriots heading to halftime facing a deficit.
Instead, with Houston rushing just three players, Brady had ample time to survey the field before waving for Edelman to break deep down the sideline. Edelman did just that, and Brady dropped the ball between two Texan defensive backs for a 48-yard pickup that set up a Patriots field goal at the conclusion of the half.
The play highlighted both the receiver’s impact and his rapport with Brady, the ability of Edelman — a former quarterback — to respond to the state of the field and collaborate with the Patriots’ signal-caller to make a game-changing play.
“They were dropping everyone,” explained Edelman. “Any time they’re rushing three, the plays are going to go longer, you’re going to have the ability to make a play downfield.”
The third-quarter drive on which the Patriots seized control of the game for good was a continuation of the showcase of the Brady-to-Edelman connection. With the Patriots backed to their 10, Brady opened the drive with a pair of passes to Edelman down the left sideline, the first a perfectly timed 26-yarder downfield — with Edelman making a slight route adjustment on a play where Brady was crushed — followed by a 14-yard back-shoulder catch to get to midfield.
On a 90-yard drive that concluded with Brady’s touchdown pass to James White to give the Patriots a 24-13 lead, the quarterback and his favorite receiver connected four times for 54 yards, collaborating effectively on short, intermediate, and deep routes in a three-minute span. It was a testimony to all that Edelman can do on the field, and of his quarterback’s reliance upon him in pivotal moments.
“It’s very impressive. Being a quarterback in his prior days definitely helps him. He can see coverages how we see them, and it’s just a comforting feeling knowing you’ve got a guy like that,” noted backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “There’s no surprise [about his playoff value]. The guy comes in every day, puts in work, and the results show.”
Following a game in which Edelman spent more time bemoaning the Patriots’ failures of execution than he did celebrating the victory, the receiver was uninterested in taking stock of his place in playoff history.
“I just want to win games,” Edelman shrugged of his climb in the record books. “That’s all I got on that one.”
It is precisely the sort of bottom-line outlook — and obsession with precise execution over results — that has made Edelman the cornerstone of the Patriots’ playoff passing game.