Patriots

On the occasion of Tom Brady’s 10th conference title game, a remembrance of his first

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher reflects on Brady’s first AFC Championship Game.

Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was all smiles on the sidelines during a 2001 win over the Colts.

Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was all smiles on the sidelines during a 2001 win over the Colts.

COMMENTARY

I always appreciated the Bill James line about Rickey Henderson and his transcendent excellence: If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers. What a perfect way to put his distinctive career — his stratospheric level of accomplishment is a big reason why Tim Raines isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet — in context.

I say that with the acknowledgment that the line could have been even better had the ballplayer made such a proclamation himself: If you divide Rickey in half, Rickey and Rickey would both be Hall of Famers. Today, Rickeys are the greatest of all time!

Tom Brady, of course, would never make such a proclamation on his own behalf. (Or, for that matter, refer to himself as Rickey.) But as his prime continues into his late-30s and his accomplishments mount, I’ve started to wonder whether a parallel case could be made regarding his own greatness.

Consider: If Brady was just an average quarterback statistically, but one who had still accomplished all of the same team achievements, wouldn’t that career alone warrant Hall of Fame consideration?

Now consider the opposite: If we were basing Brady’s Hall of Fame argument solely on statistics — say, if he’d had a bunch of one-and-done visits to the playoffs and never hoisted a Lombardi Trophy — wouldn’t he still be a Canton lock? He is third all time in regular-season touchdown passes (428), fifth in passing yards (58,028) and sixth in rating (96.4). Give that stat-hog a mustard-colored jacket!

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That’s my roundabout way of arriving at perhaps the most amazing Tom Brady statistic among all of the amazing Tom Brady statistics:

In 14 seasons as the Patriots’ starting quarterback, he has played in 10 conference championship games. Ten. In 14 seasons. How amazing is that? That’s just two fewer than Joe Montana (7) and Peyton Manning (5) will have played in after Sunday — combined. It is at once a tribute to the franchise and the franchise quarterback’s enduring greatness at a time when everything about the NFL is designed to prevent prolonged and uninterrupted excellence.

There are millions of ways to quantify Brady’s greatness, and that conversation begins with the four Super Bowl wins. But the 10 appearances in the NFL’s final four is a feat worth recognizing and saluting. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see anything like it again.

The anticipation of his 10th conference title game appearance has had me returning to think about his first this week. The AFC Championship matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers in January 2002 doesn’t seem that long ago, does it? Yet that game, a 24-17 Patriots victory, is ancient and storied history now, an early cornerstone in a perfectly architected skyscraper of a career.

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But it doesn’t feel that long ago because, even 15 years later, our recollections remain crisp: We can still feel the crackling joy of Troy Brown’s multi-purpose excellence that day and Drew Bledsoe’s redemption and the satisfaction that came from silencing the cocky Steelers. Remember? They looked at the Patriots as a speed bump to a Super Bowl bid, a fluke. They talked trash all week and discussed their big plans for New Orleans, the Super Bowl host city that year. The Patriots made it clear during the coin toss that they planned to do some silencing that day. When Steelers running back Jerome Bettis started to yap, Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox got in his face.

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“I just wanted to make a point that we were not backing down,’’ Cox said. “He started talking about how he was ready and all this and that, and I said, ‘Jerome, this ain’t what you’re gonna be looking for today.’’’

The game was not Brady’s coming out party, indisputable evidence that he would be a force to be reckoned with — well, hell, for even a couple of years, let alone a decade-and-a-half. He played conservatively and confidently and fairly well, completing 12 of 18 passes for 115 yards.

Yet he is not the first Patriots quarterback who comes to mind when you think of that game. Steelers defensive back Lee Flowers rolled up Brady’s legs with 1:40 remaining in the first half, injuring the young quarterback’s ankle. Fortunately, the Patriots had a backup of some accomplishment. Bledsoe, who could not get the job back after suffering a brutal, history-altering injury in Week 2, came in for one final fulfilling moment with the Patriots. It was one of the most satisfying days in franchise history.

It was not, however, that much fun for those on the other sideline. “You know what? That wasn’t the most fun day of my coaching career,’’ said former Steelers coach and current CBS studio analyst Bill Cowher through a chuckle during a conversation this week. “I love watching Brady. I love watching the fire. I love watching how he embraces the moment, the competitiveness. But back then, you were impressed by him, but you didn’t know what he’d become.

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“It’s funny, that 2001 game, he hurt his ankle early in the game, and Bledsoe came in and finished the game, and that maybe stays in my mind a little more. But we went against Tom in 2004, and he got us then [a 41-27 Patriots victory in what was Brady’s third conference championship game appearance]. We watched him grow, and there’s not a more consummate pro. There’s not a greater competitor on the field. I got to see it early, a couple of times.’’

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Cowher, known for his fiery sideline demeanor and trademark jutting jaw, is disarmingly soft-spoken now, nine years after he last coached in the NFL. He praises Brady’s talent, noting that his decision-making, always a strength, has somehow gotten better and better through the years. But the attributes that he most admires in Brady have little to do with his statistics or ability to spin a football.

“The one thing that’s so special about him is the way he inspires people around him,’’ said Cowher. “He has such drive, such competitiveness, and he’s got a tremendous focus. He understands situations, how to run a quarterback sneak, what to do during specific down and distances. He’s poised, but he’s very fiery when he needs to be fiery. That’s the one thing I love about him as a quarterback. His ability to assess the moment, seize the moment, and then inspire those around him to make sure they’re in the moment.

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“He has the maturity, but yet the fire is also there that you see in a young, spirited quarterback. It’s a great combination and it’s why he’ll go down arguably as the best player ever to play that position.’’

Cowher makes a fine point about the importance and appeal of Brady’s youthful enthusiasm at age 38. But it’s also an understatement. Brady isn’t arguably the best player ever to play quarterback. He’s done so much — and still doing it — that he is to his position what a man named Rickey was to leadoff hitters: If you could split Brady in two, you’d have two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play.

Chad Finn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.

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