THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

Brady less-than perfect, still a winner

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / January 20, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - There Tom Brady was, hanging out at his favorite haunt, otherwise known as the red zone. He hadn't thrown an interception in that sacred section of the football field since Jan. 14, 2006, the day Denver cornerback Champ Bailey leaped in front of one of his normally pinpoint missiles and punctured New England's playoff dreams.

Now it was two years and 62 red zone touchdowns later, and the Patriots' quarterback, older and infinitely wiser, was surveying a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line with his team holding a scant 14-12 advantage in the AFC Championship game over a resilient San Diego Chargers team.

Brady looked right, where Randy Moss was blanketed, as he had been for the majority of the afternoon. Then Brady glanced to the back of the end zone, where tight end Benjamin Watson was waiting, seemingly unattended.

Number 12 in your program saw his target, cocked his arm, and ...

(We interrupt this unfolding playoff scenario to remind you how incredibly spoiled all of New England has become with respect to the quarterback of this unbeaten football team, who completed 26 of 28 passes last week, and threw for 50 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions all season. Was there any doubt in your mind what was going to happen today at this critical moment? The face of the franchise [and of bottled water, expensive watches, and Stetson cologne, which, back when I was growing up, was what your eighth-grade boyfriend wore to impress you] was about to throw a touchdown pass.)

Only he didn't.

Instead, Antonio Cromartie sprung in front of Watson, picked off the ball, and threatened to turn this football game upside down.

"I just lost track of him," said Brady, sounding decidedly mortal.

It's easy to forget Brady is human, and on the rare occasion he exhibits that, New England suddenly appears vulnerable. Give San Diego's defense credit for knocking Brady out of his comfort zone, just as they had done to the Colts' marquee quarterback, Peyton Manning, the week before, with pressure in the pocket, aggressive man coverage, and the ability to create turnovers.

"Cromartie's pick was a big, big play," said Chargers safety Clinton Hart. "We had this sense that maybe we had him [Brady], a little bit. But then ... "

By now you know the ending. Brady, mired in one of the most frustrating performances of his illustrious postseason career, having been picked off three times by the opportunistic Chargers defense, understood on this bitterly cold day that he would not be hoisting bombs to Randy Moss (one catch, 18 yards). He would not popping TD throws like Skittles (he had two on the day). He would not throw for 300-plus yards (he checked out with 209).

Instead, he would do what he was paid to do: manage his offense, which on this day meant handing off to Laurence Maroney, lining up in multi-tight end formations, and, when it was all said and done, bleeding the clock down to nothing.

You don't earn the moniker as the best player in the NFL by allowing your miscues to drag you down. Brady is a master of positive self-talk, and even though his afternoon was not how he scripted it, that would have no bearing on his ability to close the deal down the stretch.

"I don't think anything bothers him," noted tight end Kyle Brady. "If it does, he sure doesn't show it. Tom is unflappable, to say the least."

While Maroney deserves the headlines today for yet another spirited playoff contribution in this 21-12 victory, it should not go unnoticed that the quarterback who was struggling so mightily submitted a flawless fourth quarter, going 7 of 7 for 63 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown toss to Wes Welker with 12:15 left.

Equally important was the Patriots' clock management. After San Diego, down 9 points, inexplicably chose to punt on fourth and 10 from New England's 36, the home team gained control of the ball with 9:13 left and did not relinquish it.

Once again, the Patriots had done just enough to win. Yet even Tom Brady's teammates couldn't help but note how significant it was to do that without their star QB at the top of his game.

"I was thinking of exactly that same thing in the fourth quarter," said Kyle Brady. "It shows tremendous resiliency on our part to win despite some of the turnovers. To have the defense step up the way they did was tremendous. Really, I think we've proven we can win a number of different ways."

In the quiet of the San Diego locker room after the loss, the defensive players resolutely stood by their game plan. The Chargers made a point of stressing they did not double Moss to limit his catches, and will go home convinced they got inside Brady's head.

"We study film and we know what they are going to do before they do it," said cornerback Drayton Florence.

"We felt like we had their number the whole game," added safety Marlon McCree. "The three interceptions proved that. The disappointing part was we gave up touchdowns instead of field goals."

McCree is right. The difference in this game was New England's defense was in its usual bend-but-don't-break mode. And while the Chargers are to be commended for making Brady&'s life difficult, his offense still punched it into the end zone three times.

Brady will review the film of this game at some juncture, although certainly not today. After a couple days of rest, he will settle in and see Quentin Jammer bound in front of his sideline pass to Donte' Stallworth in the first quarter ("I don't know what that guy's vertical [leap] is, but he got up there on that one," Brady lauded). He will undoubtedly rewind the play on the opening series of the third quarter, when he threw under pressure and saw the ball tick off Stallworth's hands and into the waiting arms of Florence.

The Chargers have played all season this way, forcing quarterbacks into hurried throws, tipping passes, and hanging onto them when they popped free.

For eight straight weeks, that was enough to conjure up a win.

None of those teams had Tom Brady, who, even at his worst, maintains the poise and command of a quarterback who has been there before, and will now go there again.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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