Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Why Tom Brady is like Jimi Hendrix. (Work with me)

Tom Brady was 24 years and 184 days old when he played in his first Super Bowl. He’ll be 41 years and 184 days old when he appears in his ninth. When the Patriots beat the Rams in 2002, Brady became the youngest winning quarterback in Super annals. Should the Pats beat the Rams on Sunday, he’ll become the oldest quarterback to win it. 

Come Sunday, Brady will have worked in 17 percent of the 53 Super Bowls. Of the Super Bowls in his lifetime, he has partaken of 21.4 percent. Of the Super Bowls played since he exited Michigan as the 199th player taken in the 2000 draft, he has worked in 47.3 percent. If we discount his rookie season, in which he was Drew Bledsoe’s understudy, and the 2008 season, which he missed after tearing his ACL in Week 1, he has taken his team to the ultimate game 52.9 percent of the time. 

No quarterback can match Brady’s nine Super starts. No TWO quarterbacks can top it. If we combine, say, John Elway (five starts) and Joe Montana (four), we get only nine. If we add those the number of Super wins for those two immortals, we get six. Should the Pats win Sunday, Brady will have six by his lonesome. 

Pair the twin pillars of the ’70s – Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach – and we get eight Super starts, one fewer than Brady. Pair the brothers Manning and we get six, three fewer than TB12. A decade-spanning mix of Bart Starr, Fran Tarkenton, Troy Aikman and Brett Favre yields 10 Super stars, meaning it takes four Hall of Famers to top Brady by one. 

Apologies for this fun-with-factoids, but we’re past the point where words suffice. There’s almost nobody who doesn’t rate Brady as the greatest quarterback of all time, and unanimity in our fractious world is seldom seen. Even Michael Jordan – “the greatest there ever was, the greatest there will ever be,” to invoke the wording on his statue outside the United Center – has seen his exalted status put under pressure by LeBron James. But Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, who had the audacity to suggest that Brady might have aged bit, conceded of the codger, “He’s the GOAT.” 

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Since making Brady its starting quarterback – which happened two weeks into the 2001 season, when Bledsoe, a former No. 1 overall pick who’d led the Pats to a Super Bowl, suffered a chest injury on a hit by the Jets’ Mo Lewis – New England has won the AFC East every season but two. One miss was in 2002, Brady’s first full year as a starter. The second was in 2008, when he was hurt. Brady’s career record as a starter is 207-60. That’s a winning percentage of .775. Of quarterbacks who’ve started more than 100 games, only two others are above .700 – Staubach at .733, Montana at .711. 

Are there more exciting quarterbacks than Brady? Yes. (Aaron Rodgers, to name one.) Are there passers with stronger arms? (Rodgers again.) In November, the Patriots and Packers met on Sunday night. NBC billed it as “The GOAT game,” as if the quarterbacks were equals. The reality is that even the massively gifted Rodgers – one Super Bowl appearance, a career winning percent of .651, less than half as many fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives as Brady – doesn’t belong in the same breath.

It’s like ranking rock guitarists: The debates begin at No. 2; the top line always reads “Jimi Hendrix.” Among quarterbacks, there’s only one possible No. 1. If you believe otherwise, did you not read the previous seven paragraphs?

In Brady’s first Super Bowl, the Rams’ quarterback was Kurt Warner, twice the NFL’s MVP. Brady’s team won. In his second AFC title game, the opponent was Indianapolis, led by Peyton Manning, that year’s MVP. Brady’s team won. In his seventh Super Bowl, the opponent was Atlanta, led by MVP Matt Ryan. Brady’s team won. In his 13th – yes, the 13th – AFC Championship game, the opponent was Kansas City, led by Patrick Mahomes, surely this season’s MVP. Brady’s team won. 

Of his eight Super Bowls to date, not one has seen Brady performing mop-up duty. The aggregate margin of the five wins is 19 points. The aggregate margin of the three losses is 15. The biggest fourth-quarter deficit overcome in Super history was seven points before Brady engineered a rally from 10 down against the Seahawks. Two years later, he turned 28-3 into the most famous partial score in American sports. 

He has led a fourth-quarter game-winning drive in all five of his Super wins. He has overcome a fourth-quarter deficit in three of the five. New England’s winning points came at 0:00 against the Rams in 2002, at 0:04 against the Panthers in 2004, with 2:02 left against the Seahawks in 2015 and 4:58 into overtime against the Falcons in 2017. In two of Brady’s three Super losses, his pass was batted away in the end zone at 0:00. 

The first of Brady’s 39 playoff games saw him lead a fourth-quarter comeback and win in overtime, that against the Raiders on a snowy night in the Tuck Rule game. His 39th playoff appearance saw him convert three third-and-longs to drive the Patriots to an overtime win on a frigid night in Kansas City. Now he comes full circle, facing the Rams on Feb. 3 in a roofed building in a Southern state, and we recall that it wasn’t a given that Brady would start that Super Bowl 19 years ago. 

Brady had hurt his ankle in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh. Bledsoe, healthy again, replaced him and sat out the victory. Much debate ensued: The vet or the kid? Late on the Wednesday of Super Week, the Patriots sent word that Bill Belichick had opted for Brady. As for the game: New England built a 17-3 lead. The Rams tied the score with 1:37 remaining. John Madden opined that the Pats, with no timeouts remaining, should play for overtime. Brady completed five passes to take his team 53 yards. Adam Vinatieri won it with a field goal. 

That remains the biggest Super upset since the merger. The Rams, who ranked first in the NFL in offense and defense, were 14-point favorites. For 58-1/2 minutes, the 24-year-old Brady did a commendable job of not losing the game. He’d thrown a touchdown pass to David Patten but mostly had handed the ball off. He had 93 yards passing when the final drive began. Then, asked to win the game, he won the game.

Seventeen years to the day later, he’ll work another Super Bowl. Much has happened since – he married Gisele; he was suspended by Roger Goodell; his personal trainer became a talking point – and there are people who can’t stand him. But we’ve spent so long watching Tom Brady in the Super Bowl that a Super Bowl without Tom Brady would feel incomplete. It’s the biggest game. He’s the greatest ever. They belong together. And here, yet again, they are.

About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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