ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Tom Brady spent most of his Sunday afternoon in Buffalo scampering for his football life, rolling away from pressure, avoiding sacks and airmailing the ball out of bounds, looking for any sliver of room to get the Patriots offense going.
He didn’t often find it, and when his day was complete, he didn’t put up much of a verbal defense for a dismal statistical day, for completing just 18-of-39 passes for 150 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. All of it amounted to a passer rating of 45.9, which is the lowest Brady has recorded in a victory.
Yup — he still won the game.
And as much as this 16-10 victory belonged squarely in the hands of New England’s defense, it reminded us plenty about the 42-year-old energizer bunny Brady, too. Of course he can light it up when he has to — one look back at last year’s thrilling shootout against the Chiefs reminds us of that. But he can grind it out when he has to, and when he manages to do that the way he did Sunday in the face of a menacing, harassing, and downright intimidating Bills defense, he also makes you remember it isn’t always as easy as he makes it look.
Brady’s skill at managing a game when things aren’t going right has been just as crucial to his two decades of success as his ability to soar when things are flying high. His ability to adapt on the fly has set him apart from the quarterback pack as much as any of his measurable skills has. To quote a character from a famous comedy that was wrapping up a 10-season run just as Brady was prepping to win the second of his record six Super Bowls, it’s not that common, it doesn’t happen to everybody, and it is a big deal.
“Look, winning is tough in this league and I think we were reminded of that today,” teammate Matthew Slater said. “It’s easy to be deceived by some early results thinking, ‘OK we can just come out here today and win easily,’ but I think today was a real look at what it’s going to be like going forward.”
Sunday was anything but easy. Brady targeted Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon seven times each, completing just four and three passes, respectively as they fought to get open. He targeted Phillip Dorsett nine times with only two completions, and while he connected with James White eight times on 10 tries, an early 26-yard completion that represented Brady’s prettiest throw of the day accounted for most of their 57 yards.
As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out after the game, Brady’s 3.8-yard average per pass attempt was the lowest of his career in a win. Not surprising, given how often he was rolling out for his life, pressure coming at him without the Bills even needing to blitz, leaving him no chance to take advantage of them the way he is accustomed. He was never officially sacked, but mostly because he got rid of the ball so often.
Still, he was the one standing at the end.
“He’s been in so many different situations so I think people forget that he’s so resilient,” Dorsett said, sitting at his locker after the game, the sense of relief at winning this battle of 3-0 teams hanging heavy in New Era Field’s visitors’ locker room. “It’s not a situation that he’s never seen. People think of him and acknowledge him as one of the greatest of all time and he lights everybody up, but at the end of the day, his resiliency, to me, is his best trait.”
It was so easy to assume Brady would win easily in Buffalo, because he always wins in Buffalo. We spent a week lauding (and maybe even laughing) at how his 15 career wins in Buffalo outranked any Bills’ starter opposite him these last 20 years. That statistic is an amazing testament to Brady’s longevity and ability, even if it simultaneously exposes Buffalo’s comparable futility. But football always has a way of reminding us not to assume anything, and without the huge assist from his defense (four interceptions, five sacks, and a hit that knocked starter Josh Allen out of the game and into concussion protocol), without a touchdown from special teams, Brady might not have pulled this one out.
Except he did. With the grind.
“Absolutely,” said Slater, who scored his first career TD when he scooped up a blocked punt. “He’s the ultimate competitor. There’s no one in this locker room that has the will to win that’s greater than his. When you get in games like this you see it on full display.
“It’s him just never quitting, always believing in the guys out there, pushing us to keep competing.”
By the time Brady came to his postgame interview, he was in a neatly pressed, immaculately paired black and checked ensemble, the aftereffects of such a difficult afternoon barely evident. But don’t be fooled. His day was hard. He’d been picked off in the end zone late in the second quarter, his 2-yard pass for Edelman snagged by Micah Hyde when Brady didn’t see Hyde peel away from other coverage. Gone was the chance to push the lead to 20-0, squandered was a 16-play drive that had started at the Patroits’ 5-yard line. In was the chance for Buffalo to cut the lead to 13-3 with an ensuing field goal drive.
“You get a little careless, think you got someone and the windows close pretty quick,” Brady said. “That was a bad play by me. You can’t afford to give away points like that. But our defense made up for it.”
They get the credit for sure, but Brady the grinder gets his share, too.