When Tom Brady has the ball in OT, Patriots defense is confident (but ready)
FOXBOROUGH — Devin McCourty made it sound so easy. Once his offense got hold of the ball in overtime, all he had to do was watch.
“You saw me — I ran off as soon as I saw it was heads,” the veteran cornerback said in the heady moments after the Patriots’ OT victory over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. “I’m going to get comfy.”
The observation wasn’t shocking, given his quarterback’s long history of game-winning drives. In so many ways, McCourty was simply putting voice to the same sentiment bursting across the NFL spectrum once the Patriots won the overtime coin toss. From Tom Brady’s offensive teammates to the Chiefs’ defenders, from the announcers in the television booth to the fans in their living room seats, the expectation was that Brady would do it again.
With their king of clutch under center, there is a level of confidence among Patriots offensive players that is difficult to quantify but impossible to understate. A quick visit to Brady’s pro-football-reference page, where 44 fourth-quarter comebacks and 56 game-winning drives are listed, explains why. With 12 postseason game-winning drives to his credit, Brady doubles the number of any other quarterback in NFL history, and with two overtime playoff wins on his résumé, completing a third against the Chiefs had him poised to take sole ownership of yet another NFL record.
But what McCourty said opened a fascinating window into the mind of the defensive back, a player who has little control over what’s about to happen, yet has a sideline seat to the game’s greatest comeback show of them all.
“I saw heads, and thought, ‘I saw this before, and I know what happens at the end of this one,’ ” he said. “Any time we go to overtime and we get the ball, I’m not really worried about anything.”
They are not worried — but they are prepared. As much as McCourty can joke about unlacing his cleats, he is actually over on the sidelines keeping his defenders on high alert, meeting with coaches, checking with teammates, monitoring the down and distance as the offense is working.
As much as the defense believes it won’t be needed again, the players have to be ready just in case. For all the heroics of Brady’s nervy third-down conversions in that overtime drive — he completed three third-and-10 passes, two to Julian Edelman and one to Rob Gronkowski — each one of those situations had the defense perched for a return to action. In the Bill Belichick world of “do your job” and “stay in the moment,” that is more than enough to keep the focus sharp.
“Honestly, I’m just focused on my job,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “That’s the confidence we have in our offense that they have the ability to score each and every time on the field, but, defensively, our focus is getting ready to stop the opponent, still thinking, focusing, and preparing for them.”
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn said, “You’re thinking, ‘I hope they score,’ but at the same time, you think about the what-ifs, if they have to punt or only get a field goal, what did they leave for us? You’re thinking about those game decisions.”
“You’re always prepared to go back on the field,” fellow defensive lineman Trey Flowers said. “You’ve obviously got confidence, but you always got to be prepared. You never know.
“I’m always prepared, but as far as the overtime victory? Once Tom got the ball, and they got pretty close, I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s going to make it happen.’ ”
It’s quite a comforting notion to be on the same side as the 19-year veteran who has won five Super Bowls and is about to play in his ninth, a man who stays so calm in the crucible of sudden death that it envelops even those who don’t actually take the field when he does. Imagine how it feels for Jason McCourty, the first-year Patriot who spent his previous nine NFL seasons on the outside of the playoffs looking in, never afforded the luxury of a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback to win in the toughest moments.
“For a guy like Tom, he’s the GOAT,” Jason said, “And you’ve seen him do it so many times that sometimes you take it for granted and you just assume.
“For us on defense, you’re just sitting on the bench just watching one third-and-10 conversion, another third-and-10 conversion. For us, it’s just exciting. You’re like somebody sitting at home rooting for your favorite team.
“Tom’s one of those players that I’m happy he’s on my team. There’s not a ton of guys like that in our league, maybe one or two on every team, and Tom is one of those guys. When I got here, it was, ‘I’m happy I don’t have to play against him other than in practice.’ ”
When it came time for the overtime coin toss in Kansas City, Matthew Slater had barely let the game official ask his preference before he blurted out, “Heads,” and barely let said coin come to rest on the when he barked, “We want the ball.”
As the special teams captain, it was as if he’d spoken for his unit. Devin McCourty had spoken for his, too. There was no doubt what the Patriots wanted after 60 minutes of regulation football in the AFC Championship game had ended in a tie: Let Brady get to work. We’ll just watch.