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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Brady saves best for last

PITTSBURGH -- Got one of those ''Best of Larry Bird" or ''Best of Bobby Orr" tapes at home? When it's all over, the last ring has been won, and Canton is calling -- when Tom Brady's greatest hits album is compiled -- this game will take its place alongside some of those near-mythic playoff moments of the last four years.

It was Game 3, many months before the serious ball takes place, but it felt like a tournament game and Brady was in postseason form. He completed 12 of 12 passes in the fourth quarter for 168 yards. He put points on the board in each of New England's last four possessions. And after the Steelers tied the game, 20-20, with 1:21 left, he went into Montana mode and cooly moved the Patriots into position for yet another Adam Vinatieri winning kick (from 43 yards).

''What more can you ask for?" Brady said. ''I was hoping we'd stop them, but they scored and I looked at the clock and we had 1:21 left. I was like, 'OK, now it's our turn.' "

Bill Belichick compared it with basketball.

''We were playing for the last shot," said the Mensa mentor.

When you're playing for the last shot you need guys who want the ball at the end of the game. Guys like Larry Bird. Guys like Michael Jordan. Guys like Brady and Vinatieri. Come to think of it, can Terry Francona borrow Brady and use him out of the bullpen this week?

Brady had plenty of help at Ketchup Field. The Patriots' depleted offensive line fought off the relentless Pittsburgh blitz, and a succession of running backs and receivers ran correct routes, made nice catches, and followed with nifty runs -- getting out of bounds whenever it was necessary. It was surgical.

''I think the guys made some great plays," said New England's surgeon general. ''If they're open, I'll find 'em. We just made enough plays in the end. We just executed better at the end."

Brady started the fourth quarter with an 86-yard touchdown drive that required only seven plays and consumed 3 minutes 42 seconds. On the next New England drive, he switched to the no-huddle, taking advantage of a winded Steeler defense.

''It felt like we had the ball forever," noted Brady.

He was almost correct. New England's time of possession was 35:23 compared with 24:37 for the home team.

After the Steelers stunned the Patriots, tying the game on a 4-yard lob from Ben Roethlisberger to Hines Ward, Brady went to work one last time.

New England took over on its 38 after a 34-yard kickoff return by Ellis Hobbs. Working out of the shotgun formation, Brady was almost leveled by a pair of Pittsburgh blitzers, but got the ball to Kevin Faulk, who gained 17 yards before he was pushed out of bounds. Back in the shotgun, Brady next went to Patrick Pass, who scooted 14 yards and got out of bounds at the Steeler 31.

At that moment, it was oddly quiet in this giant pigskin theatre by the banks of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers. These people know their football and the 64,868 knew the Patriots were already in Vinatieri territory.

It became a game of clock management and field position, and no one plays that better than Brady. After a handoff to Corey Dillon and a 6-yard completion to David Givens, it was time to send Vinatieri onto the field. His kick split the uprights as the clock struck 00:01.

''The greatest clutch kicker in the history of football," said Brady.

No argument in St. Louis, Carolina, or Pittsburgh.

And Brady's putting together a pretty good resume himself.

''He's ice, man," said tight end Christian Fauria.

''Tom has done a good job finding receivers," deadpanned Belichick. ''When the Steelers dropped off in coverage in the last drive, he got the ball to an open man. Tom did a good job, the line held up well against a good pass rush, the receivers made some big plays and got some yards after the catch. We played the best football and made the best plays when we had to do it, when it was on the line."

As Brady ran into the Patriot locker room, he could be heard shouting, ''They hate us. They hate us here. But we love it."

Overall, he completed 31 of 41 passes for 372 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass and he was intercepted once, on a batted ball.

But those are just numbers and we know Brady isn't about the numbers. He's just about winning. He's a highlight tape waiting to be made. He's a guy who wants the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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