"This is nothing about ’09 or ’10. This is nothing about last week or last season or last month or 10 years ago. It’s about this week. The clock’s ticking. And every second that goes by, we’re one second closer to getting to that game.”
- Tom Brady during his weekly radio appearance on WEEI
* * *
Tom Brady generally has been at his best when the stakes have been highest, in the fourth quarter, in the final minutes. Maybe he is there now. Maybe Brady is in what amounts to the 2-minute drill of a historic career, one that has him among the greatest ever to play quarterback in the National Football League.
So now Brady is saying what we all have been saying for years – the clock is ticking – an acknowledgment that the incomparable quarterback of the Patriots sees what we all see. The road before him now is a great deal shorter than the one behind. Brady will be 35 at the start of next season, entering the second year of a four-year contract, and he once again has the chance to enter territory where so few have traveled.
With a win this weekend over the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium, Brady will earn the right to play in a fifth Super Bowl, a total matched in NFL history by only one other quarterback: John Elway. No one ever has played in six. No one has won more than four. If Brady can close his career the way he has closed so many games during his illustrious 12-year career, he could earn his place as the single greatest quarterback ever to play the game.
With more Super Bowl appearances than Elway. With as many (or more) Super Bowl victories than Joe Montana. With more winning on his resume than anybody in the history of the game at a position unlike any other in all of professional sports.
For Brady, it all starts anew this week, with this game against a Ravens team that battered him in the playoffs only two short years ago. In that game, Brady went 23 of 42 for just 154 yards. He threw two touchdowns against three interceptions. He was sacked three times. Brady’s quarterback rating of 49.1 was the lowest he has posted in 20 career postseason games, the statistical nadir of Brady’s existence as the most successful quarterback of his era.
Another season then passed without the Patriots winning a postseason game, and so a little more sand trickled through the hourglass of what has been Brady’s career.
Now 15-5 in his postseason career as a starter, Brady still has a great deal to gain on Saturday. We focus on the winning in professional sports, and maybe we do that to a fault. Trent Dilfer has won as many Super Bowls as Peyton Manning. Dan Marino never won one at all. The real accomplishments sometimes come from merely being in contention, from being in position, from an astonishingly high level of consistency that makes championships an annual goal and expectation.
Five Super Bowls? Think of that. With a win on Sunday, Brady will have played in more Super Bowls than all but nine franchises in NFL history. More than the Buffalo Bills or Minnesota Vikings or Chicago Bears. More than the Ravens, New Orleans Saints, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers combined. More than anyone really has the right to play in, particularly during an era of salary caps and parity.
During his time in New England, Brady’s metamorphosis has been extraordinary. He started out as a heady backup quarterback. He became an iconic figure. What the football world has now is a combination of Joe Namath (off the field) and Joe Montana (on it), a blend of looks, talent, intelligence and opportunity that has at once made Brady one of the most successful, identifiable and enviable people in the world. There has been good and bad to come from that. Brady undoubtedly longs for privacy. He is both revered and resented. He is part quarterback and part beau, spending a fair amount of his time as the lesser-known Mr. Bundchen.
On Saturday, against the overmatched Denver Broncos, Brady tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes, five of them coming in a record first half. He threw the ball with conviction. At times, Brady’s focus seemed so great that the ball landed in his receivers hands as if it were a baseball snapping into a catcher’s mitt, the echo of an unmistakable pop all but reverberating throughout Gillette Stadium.
Today, just four days before the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Ravens, New England is now bracing for the sixth conference title game of the Brady-Belichick era. As always, Brady will need help if the Patriots are to advance. The beauty of team sports is that no one man can take a team to a championship, particularly in football, and Brady knows this as surely as anyone who ever has stepped behind center.
Now more than ever, in the wake of nearly a four-year span in Foxboro, Brady understands that opportunities like this are still rare.
Brady knows much more than the fact that the clock is ticking.
What he knows, for the first time in a long time again, is that the Patriots have a chance.
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