FOXBOROUGH – It is not as if gaudy statistics and shattered records are required to define Tom Brady’s career. Citing rank on career leaderboards is necessary in a place like, oh, Denver or Indianapolis when comparing superstar quarterbacks’ achievements. Certain wobbly postseason legacies need statistical buttressing. Brady’s four Super Bowl rings do just fine in providing proper context for all that he has accomplished in his 16 NFL seasons.
Of course, while Brady’s statistical feats don’t define him, they should not be ignored either. They cannot be ignored. He accumulates more remarkable numerical achievements virtually every time he takes the football field. And so in the satisfied aftermath of the Patriots’ 27-20 victory over the Chiefs Saturday night, an outcome that allows them to continue the pursuit of a fifth Lombardi Trophy next weekend in the AFC Championship game against either the Broncos or Steelers, there is one number specific to Brady that must be acknowledged, for it is telling in regard to the depth of his achievement.
With a one-yard sneak in the second quarter, Brady scored his sixth rushing touchdown of his postseason career. (He also gave the Patriots a 14-3 lead with the dive, a rather important detail.) That tied him with Steve McNair, John Elway and Otto Graham for the second-most playoff rushing TDs all time by a quarterback. Only Steve Young (8) has more.
That’s a heck of a feat given that Brady is the quintessential pocket-passer, albeit one with an uncanny knack for plunging through the pile for a yard when 35 inches are needed. But what’s really impressive is the who’s-who of legendary running backs who have as many or fewer postseason rushing touchdowns than Brady. LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk had six each. Earl Campbell had just four. Walter Payton? Two, which is confirmation of the thickness of Mike Ditka’s iron skull. Barry Sanders? One.
Brady isn’t about to catch Emmitt Smith (18 playoff rushing TDs) unless his goofy diet allows him to play into his 70s, but at this point, who would put anything past him? He’s 38 years old, playing as well as he ever has, and caring as much as anyone can. That’s the thing about Brady, or one meaningful thing, anyway. The rushing touchdown against the Chiefs wasn’t just a cool statistical achievement; it was absolutely necessary in assuring that the outcome would end up in the Patriots’ favor. Like the game itself, it was hard-won.
Brady endured a troubling number vicious hits on that particular drive, one that lasted 11 plays and covered 98 yards. On one pass, he was Malachi-crunched by a pair of Chiefs defenders. On another, he was leveled by linebacker Dezman Moses, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty. Then, on second down from the Chiefs’ 11-yard line, he rolled right, saw daylight ahead, and headed toward the pylon, only to be met at the intersection of pain and six points’ worth of joy by defensive backs Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch. As Brady went airborne and clipped the pylon, one of the accelerating Chiefs defensive backs hit him in the back of the helmet. The officials signaled no touchdown.
Brady was not in agreement with that call. He was, instead, in a rage, that is, if rage can ever be accompanied by laughter. He waved hysterically for the coaching staff to throw a challenge flag. He called a timeout, then hustled to the sideline and barked animatedly at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. A moment later, he plunged in for the score. Moments after that, he was laughing about it with McDaniels. Mr. Cool had lost his cool, briefly, and at a time when stories about Brady’s quirks in the name of discipline have been making the rounds, it was a hilarious reminder of the competitive insanity required for him to do all that he does.
That weird drive seemed appropriate after what was such a strange week in Foxborough that reminiscences about the reckless knife-in-the-hand, fork-in-the-road days of Irving Fryar were impossible to resist. Chandler Jones showed up at the police department last Sunday morning with no shoes, no shirt and no clue. Belichick had a mysterious black eye on Tuesday. Rob Gronkowski kept popping up on the injury report just when we thought he was fine. (He was, by the way, with a pair of touchdown receptions. Exhale again, at least until next week.)
There were so many distractions — for you and I, that is, and not the always focused players — that it was almost forgotten that Brady was trying to overcome an ankle injury suffered two weeks ago against the Dolphins. If watching Alex Smith dink and dunk his way into third-and-6 situations all day wasn’t reminder enough of how fortunate we are to have Brady — and to their credit, the Gillette stragglers chanted his name long after he’d departed the premises for presumably a mushroom- and tomato-free dinner — well, there were many other reasons, on the field, and confirmed by the stat sheet.
No, the numbers don’t define Brady. But they do confirm the amazing things this team has accomplished in his tenure. Here are a few more stats, if only to enhance the appreciation: With the win, the Patriots became just the second team in NFL history to make it to five consecutive conference title games (the 1973-77 Oakland Raiders are the other). With a win next week, they will make a seventh Super Bowl appearance in the Brady-Belichick era. And should the Patriots get to Santa Clara, it will mark the 32nd playoff game of Brady’s career, which would double the total of playoff games the franchise had participated in (16) during the 40 seasons before he arrived in New England.
Oh, and one more: he also threw for 302 yards Saturday, tying Peyton Manning for the most 300-yard passing games in the postseason, nine. That statistic will be part of Manning’s legacy. For Brady, that statistic represents a means to an end, one that involves a trophy raised and falling confetti. That’s all that matters. It’s all that has ever mattered.