FOXBOROUGH — In theory it all made sense.
The Jets saw what the Patriots did to the Bills last week, rushing for 273 yards. They remembered what the Patriots did to them earlier this season, rushing for 215. Maybe there wasn’t anything Jets coach Todd Bowles could do to change his likely fate on the firing line, but he sure as hell could control the embarrassment on the way out. So he came into Sunday’s regular-season finale in Foxborough with an obvious defensive game plan.
“They played a couple of different fronts and certainly weren’t going to let us run the ball like we did last week or even in the first game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We didn’t know what the Jets were going to do, but they definitely did a good job of taking away some of the running and blocking angles and so forth that we might’ve been able to create. They simply weren’t there.”
In other words, as receiver Phillip Dorsett pointed out, “We knew we needed to win this game in the air.”
As football theories go, let that one sink in for a bit. The Jets came to New England daring Tom Brady to beat them, deciding his arm would be less important to stop than, say, Sony Michel’s legs. Seems insane against a five-time Super Bowl champion recently named to his record 14th Pro Bowl, but given the way this season has gone for the 41-year-old quarterback, maybe not so nuts. Questions about his health (is his knee injured?), his horses (will Rob Gronkowski ever be the same, can anyone replace Josh Gordon?) and his happiness (how much longer does he really want to do this?) seemed to culminate in last week’s win over the Bills, when Brady’s contribution was more supporting actor than starring role. The Patriots finally clinched their 10th straight AFC East title with that win, but the failure of the previous two attempts to do so in both Miami and Pittsburgh lingered nonetheless.
And the cloud hovered most over Brady.
Stop me if you know what happened next.
Tom Brady punched a four-touchdown hole in the Jets’ defensive theory, completing 24-of-33 passes for 250 yards with zero interceptions in a 38-3 win, a vintage performance that wasn’t significant simply because it clinched the team’s ninth consecutive first-round playoff bye, but because it came on the heels of last week’s season-low 126-yard output, because it was built on the hands of seven different receivers, because it capped this undeniably see-saw Brady season on a high at precisely the right time.
“Got to respect him,” Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers said.
“He played great,” receiver Chris Hogan said.
“Never any doubt,” Dorsett agreed. “He’s always good. He’s always great.”
When Belichick said afterward, “Essentially we won next week because we won today,” he was speaking to the importance of his team’s most complete game of the season (not shocking against the eternally hapless Jets) and the opportunity to rest any ailing bodies. He was also giving a nod to the ability of his best player to rise in conjunction with the stakes. Brady once again managed to redirect a conversation that has been alternately fixated on his age, his attitude and his accompanying talent (or lack thereof) and turn it back to where it usually is, on his own greatness and consistency. From a morning post on Instagram in which he’d captioned a photo collage of himself and teammates with the words, “Still here,” and “Let’s go,” to an afternoon performance that proved how much the former is true and how easily the latter is answered, Brady was back to being Brady Sunday.
“I don’t think too much about it,” he insisted afterward. “It just feels like I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done. So, it took a great team effort today and a lot of guys made a bunch of good plays. I just love being quarterback and love playing here and love winning.”
He did a lot of it at Gillette Stadium this season, where Sunday’s blowout completed a perfect 8-0 home record. But if that mark shows how much went right for him along the way — outdueling young star Patrick Mahomes and old gun Aaron Rodgers, besting a revitalized Andrew Luck and sweeping division foes Buffalo, Miami and New York — it is not enough to offset the sense of roller coaster uncertainty to his performances.
The road was not so kind. The 0-2 swing through Jacksonville and Detroit that dropped the team to 1-2, when Brady couldn’t beat the heat and was left begging his team to have more urgency, to practice better, to translate what they were learning onto the field. The second two-game losing streak of the season at Miami and Pittsburgh, when an uncharacteristic haze of Brady mistakes (losing track of timeouts before halftime in Miami) and miscues (did he really throw those ugly, inaccurate passes to close out the Steelers game?) tore open the what’s-wrong-with-him conversation with a vengeance. The loss of Josh Gordon and the lack of a passing attack last week felt like a capper.
Until it didn’t. There was Brady in the postgame locker room Sunday, completing one more pass, this one sweeter than anything he’d just done on the field. His three children bounced around the room, hoping for an audience with their favorite faux family member, the one they call Uncle Gronk. Gronkowski, however, was surrounded at his locker by cameras and interviewers. Brady told his daughter to go ahead and get a hug anyway — “they love Gronk,” he laughed out loud, — and 6-year-old Vivian forced her way through the crowd like a seasoned vet.
Just like her dad, who on Sunday, redirected the conversation with similar ease and certainty, and just in time for the playoffs.