It required less than two minutes for Tom Brady to set in motion one of the signature performances of a brilliant postseason career.
By the time the Patriots had taken the kickoff and sprinted 62 yards toward an eventual field goal in the first 1:52 of their 36-17 AFC Championship game romp past the Steelers, Brady had connected with four receivers.
Martellus Bennett (12 yards), Julian Edelman (41 yards), Malcolm Mitchell (5 yards), and Danny Amendola (4 yards) all were on the receiving end of precision darts, with only Mitchell’s drop of a second perfectly thrown ball on third down in the red zone stalling New England’s drive.
That no-huddle, spread-the-field first sequence proved a harbinger, as well as a signature. With the offensive line keeping Brady largely unscathed against a Pittsburgh defense that rarely released the hounds, the quarterback dissected the field in a way that had little precedent in his storied career.
Brady connected with his receivers on 32 of 42 pass attempts for 384 yards, a career-high yardage total for a postseason game. He threw for a trio of touchdowns, tying Joe Montana for the most playoff games with three or more touchdown passes, and he didn’t have an interception. The result was a 127.5 passer rating, the fourth-best of his career in a postseason game.
Yet those numbers fail to capture the essence of what Brady did, and what he’s done so well for so long. He displayed a surgeon’s precision in connecting with nine different receivers all over the field on short, intermediate, and deep routes, highlighting his place as perhaps the greatest ball distributor of all time.
“All the offensive players get a chance to score,” enthused running back LeGarrette Blount. “You never know who’s going to have a great game, who’s going to have a big game. That’s why you’ve got to cover everybody and cross your T’s and dot your I’s when you play against us.”
Sunday marked the third time Brady has connected with at least nine receivers in a playoff game. Yet in the previous two instances — the 2004 divisional round win over the Colts and the 2003 divisional round victory over the Titans — he limited his attack to short routes that resulted in minimal gains (less than 6 yards per attempt in both instances). He was charged with managing a conservative offensive blueprint.
Against the Steelers, Brady was charged with conducting the full orchestra. He connected on short passes to Bennett (5 catches, 32 yards), short and intermediate routes to Edelman (8 catches, 118 yards), and intermediate and deep strikes to Chris Hogan (9 catches, 180 yards).
“He ripped us apart,” lamented Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt. “We didn’t get there [with a pass rush], and he picked us apart.”
“He’s no joke, man,” added Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell. “It doesn’t get any better than 12. Every time we weren’t on the guy in the flat, he was able to find it, and when we weren’t pressuring, he was very poised and patient. Did a good job finding the open man.”
Hogan, the eighth Patriots receiver to post a 100-yard receiving game with Brady, seemed the embodiment of that spread-the-field approach, as he emerged as a featured weapon one week after Brady connected with the wide receiver on all four targets for 97 yards against the Texans. Yet a case can be made that it was another receiver whose involvement best captured the essence of Brady’s excellence.
“You see [James Develin] caught a hitch?” noted Bennett, referring to a 13-yard sideline reception by the fullback, who had three regular-season catches. “Not too many fullbacks catch hitches outside as the No. 1, but Tom is going to find the open guy and get it to him.
“I’ve been watching [Brady] do it for years. You never know who’s going to have the big game.”
Yet it had been a while since Brady delivered this kind of wire-to-wire performance. In recent years, ferocious pass rushes in the playoffs — this year’s Texans, last year’s Broncos, and the two Giants Super Bowl teams come to mind — limited Brady’s ability to employ his full array of options.
It’s noteworthy that the Patriots are 3-4 in the playoffs in games in which Brady is sacked three or more times; they’re now 21-5 when he is sacked no more than twice. The Steelers failed to get to Brady, and in such a scenario, it’s fair to wonder whether they’d have been able to prevent him from carving their defense like a Thanksgiving turkey even if they’d had more than 11 defenders on the field.
When he had what seemed like a half-hour to manipulate Pittsburgh’s safety into doubling Edelman, thus leaving Hogan wide open for a 16-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone, Brady highlighted his mastery of the field.
Now, Brady will stand in the spotlight of the Super Bowl stage for the seventh time in his career — two more appearances in the title game than any other quarterback in Super Bowl history.
And, of course, he’ll have a shot to become the first quarterback ever with five Super Bowl rings, an accomplishment that would leave him one clear of Montana.
“It’s not a coincidence that he’s going to be the first one,” Blount said. “He’s the best quarterback to ever play the game.”
On days like Sunday, with a display of an artist in complete command of his craft, such a point can appear difficult to dispute.