This was Tom Brady back at his death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts best
FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady is defying Father Time and the patriarch of the Patriots dynasty, Bill Belichick, who perhaps anticipated that he would have moved on to a younger model by now. Mock Brady’s unorthodox and unproven methods all you want, but the proof is in his play.
Tom vs. Time is a compelling matchup. Tom vs. the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night was not. Brady and the Patriots opened their pursuit of a sixth Super Bowl title by waltzing to a 35-14 victory at Gillette Stadium in the AFC divisional playoffs.
This was 40, playoff-style, for Brady. He looked like the same guy who has brought the Patriots five Lombardi Trophies, and played better than 39-year-old Tom Brady did last year against the Houston Texans in the divisional round. All that consternation about Brady’s subpar play and six interceptions in the final six games of the regular season melted away. With James White and Chris Hogan back, No. 12 carved up Tennessee’s defense like fresh Montana powder.
It took Brady and the Patriots a little while to warm up on a frigid night in Foxborough, but once they did, you could forget the Titans. They were roadkill on the way to the Patriots’ seventh consecutive AFC title game appearance.
Brady made sure you could be snug in your infrared Under Armour pajamas at a reasonable hour. No need to stay up too late to make sure the Patriots won. At 11 p.m., local time, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with his third touchdown pass of the game to put the Patriots up, 35-7. That gave Brady 10 career playoff games with three or more touchdown passes, breaking a tie with his boyhood idol Joe Montana. Brady finished 35 of 53 for 337 yards and three touchdown passes, with no interceptions and no signs of decline.
Whatever turmoil or friction that might exist behind the scenes between the two most important principals of the Patriots dynasty, Brady and Belichick, it didn’t have any effect on the quarterback’s performance Saturday night. It even looked good enough to earn Brady that Patriot of the Week honor he covets, according to the explosive story by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham on the supposed strife at Patriot Place.
Brady absorbed more blows in that story than he did against the Titans, who were held without a sack. The alleged “slippage” and “fragility” that were evident in the team’s private evaluations of Brady, according to the ESPN story, were not visible against the Titans.
In the week leading up to the Titans game, Tom was tightlipped about the ESPN story detailing internal fractures in Foxborough. He let his play do the talking against Tennessee. Brady now has 26 career playoff wins, extending his own record.
Brady didn’t take the bait when asked if it was satisfying to respond to the critiques and criticisms he endured with a vintage performance.
“You know what, I’ve been around long enough, 18 years. I’ve had so many nice things said about me. It just goes with the territory,” said Brady. “I just try to be consistent and go do the best I can do every week for the team. Regardless of whether I’m the best quarterback in the league or the worst quarterback in the league or somewhere in between, my job is to do the best I can do for us every week.
“It was a good team win, and we’re going to need another one next week. Whoever we play is going to be a great team. I look forward to playing a championship game next week.”
The last thing that Brady and the Patriots wanted was to get into a rock fight with the surprising Titans. It looked like that was a possibility after Tennessee drew first blood. But the Titans are playoff parvenus. The Patriots are the NFL’s gentry. The AFC title game is their birthright, or is it berth right?
The age gap between Brady (40 years and 163 days) and Titans counterpart Marcus Mariota (24 years and 75 days) was the largest in NFL playoff history. The passing proficiency gap was even greater.
This was Brady back at his death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts best. He had a “warrior spirit” and wide-open receivers. Titans safety Kevin Byard said that Tennessee wanted to make Brady look like Blake Bortles. Nah. He looked like the greatest quarterback of all-time facing an overmatched defense.
Brady got perhaps the easiest of his 66 postseason touchdown passes in the second quarter. He touch-passed the ball forward a few feet to a streaking White, who came across the formation on a jet sweep action for a 5-yard score with 13:18 left in the second quarter. That allowed the Patriots to tie the game, 7-7.
The Patriots went to their no-huddle offense on their next drive and the Titans went to their no-chance defense. Brady and the Patriots breezed down the field in 1 minute and 56 seconds. White ran it in this time.
Tom Terrific doesn’t require a lot of help to put points on the board, but Tennessee gave it to him anyway. Classify it under respecting your elders.
The Titans committed the obligatory Patriots’ opponent self-inflicted wound. They had just gotten Brady off the field after consecutive incompletions, leaving the Patriots with fourth and 5 from their 14 with 6:32 left in the half. But overzealous safety Brynden Trawick jumped into the neutral zone.
The 5-yard penalty gave Brady the ball back. He didn’t waste the opportunity as he laid waste to another Dick LeBeau-designed defense. Brady hit six of his next eight passes, capping the backbreaking 91-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan on third and goal.
That gave Brady multiple touchdowns passes in a playoff game for the 21st time in his career, rewriting another one of his postseason records.
The Titans got worked over by TB12, and not in the Alex Guerrero pliability-promoting way. Whatever Guerrero is doing with Brady is working because at 40 years old he is the favorite to win his third Most Valuable Player award and is hunting a fifth Super Bowl MVP.
“He said back then that he wanted to play until he was 40. That that was his goal,” said Brady’s former understudy and current Titans backup QB Matt Cassel. “The way that he works, the way that he approaches the game speaks to his longevity and why he’s been able to play at such a high level for so long. You can say what you want, but for him, age doesn’t matter.”
Brady’s time will come. It does for every athlete.
But Brady was just killing time against the Titans, waiting until the playoffs really begin.