KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Andy Reid gave Tom Brady the ball to start Sunday evening’s AFC Championship game in Kansas City, and upon initial review, deferring to the all-world Patriots quarterback appeared idiotic. After all, it set up Brady for a clock-eating, tone-setting touchdown drive across the first eight minutes of a contest to decide who got to the Super Bowl.
In the end, Reid’s decision held up fine, as it likewise put his Chiefs in position to kick-start their second-half comeback with an opening third-quarter scoring drive, the combination serving as prelude to a rollicking game that was only starting to get interesting. It would hurtle from there through a crazy fourth quarter, landing in a 31-31 tie at the end of regulation.
But the poor playoff-cursed Reid had no such choice on the overtime flip of the coin, and when Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater correctly called heads, the game was effectively over. Was there ever any doubt what Brady would do with the ball in his hands and the game on the line?
For all the greatness this quarterbacking machine has thrust upon the football world, for all the records he has broken and titles he has won, the way in which he has built a legacy is what separates him from so many others. With a chance to drive for a win, he’s money in the bank. The ultimate clutch performer. In that realm, he has no peer.
“You saw me, I ran off as soon as I saw it was heads,” veteran cornerback Devin McCourty would say later. “I saw heads, and thought, ‘I saw this before, and I know what happens at the end of this one.’
“Any time we go to overtime and we get the ball, I’m not really worried about anything. I’m going to get comfy.”
On Sunday, it was a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown march to victory, a 4-minute-52-second symphony conducted by the greatest football maestro of all time. A 10-yard pass to Chris Hogan to start it off. A third-and-10 20-yard strike to Julian Edelman to move the chains into K.C. territory. A 15-yard third-down chunk to Edelman to touch the outer edges of field goal range. Another third-and-10 nerve-racker to Rob Gronkowski, also for 15 yards. Then three straight handoffs to Rex Burkhead and Brady had a third career overtime playoff win in three tries.
Is there any better way to define a consummate winner?
“Part of playing sports is just staying in the moment,” Brady said by way of explanation for his high-stakes heroics. “We always say one play at a time and you can’t make up for things that happen in the past. You just have to think about what you are going to do moving forward.”
Maybe the rest of the football world is getting bored of this act, and would rather have seen young Patrick Mahomes be headed to the Super Bowl for a first time rather than Brady for a third straight appearance and incomprehensible ninth overall.
But to dismiss Brady for winning too much is to insult the very thing we are supposed to value above all in sports. He does not do it alone, and he hasn’t always come out on top (Eagles last year, two Super Bowl losses to the Giants), but more often than not, if he has last licks, he makes them count the way he did on Sunday.
When he gave us this one, when he added a toppling of the top-seeded Chiefs to his 2002 dismantling of the Super Bowl-favored Rams and his 2017 overtime capper to the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time against the Falcons, his postgame smile was big enough to validate his assertion that he was as excited as he could recall in years.
That’s when Brady finally let loose, his hands splayed against the sides of his helmet, his eyes bulging in shock, as if to say, “Can you believe this just happened?” To which we say, of course we do and of course it did, because at this point he’s made it abundantly clear: Any question about the imminent demise of his career isn’t answered until he has his say.
Playing the doubter card has worked so well this season. Why on earth would he stop now?
“I think we have overcome a lot this year,” he said. “Down but not out, and we found a way to play our best the last four games: Buffalo, Jets, had the bye, played great against the Chargers, and played really well today.
“The odds were stacked against us. It hasn’t been that way for us in a while, and it certainly was this year. We started off so slow. Like I said, the last four games have been our best games.”
They’ve included some of his signature moments.
Once upon a time, Brady was a young NFL quarterback heading to his first Super Bowl, as big an underdog as you can be in the big game, a last-ditch draft pick who’d been elevated to a starting job only when the Pro Bowl veteran in front of him was injured in the regular season.
But once upon that time, Brady was also a young NFL quarterback heading to his first Super Bowl, bound and determined to cash in on opportunity in the big game, an intense if underappreciated competitor who had to fight for every ounce of quarterbacking glory.
Tom Brady beat those heavily favored Rams back in Super Bowl XXXVI, beat back the reigning king of the position at the time in Kurt Warner, beat away the doubts threatening to swallow this California kid who couldn’t even win the starting job as a Michigan undergrad, defeated them all with a last-minute drive to set up an Adam Vinatieri game-winning kick.
And now, here he comes again, 17 years later, the greatest winner we’ve ever known, unwilling to waste opportunity, so capable at cashing it in.