Tom Brady: The G.O.A.T. who never goes away

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady reacts after winning the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. With the 31-26 win, the Buccaneers to advance to the Super Bowl. (Matt Ludtke/AP)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady reacts after winning the NFC championship game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. With the 31-26 win, the Buccaneers to advance to the Super Bowl. (Matt Ludtke/AP)

Credit: Matt Ludtke

Credit: Matt Ludtke

This figured to be the season we got an answer to one of life’s great imponderables. What would happen if Superman and Thor got into a fight? We still don’t know, though my belief has always been, “The god of thunder because he’s, duh, a god. Plus he has that hammer.” As for the matter of who meant more to the Patriots … well, a fact’s a fact.

Without Tom Brady, Bill Belichick went 7-9, his first losing season since 2000.

Without Bill Belichick, Tom Brady is headed guess where?

This isn’t to suggest that another Super Bowl run — Brady’s 10th in 19 years as a starting quarterback — tells us much about him we didn’t already know. This is to suggest that the case for Brady being no more than an implementer of Belichick’s iron will just got shredded. Brady shows up in Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers go to the Super Bowl, which means they go nowhere, Super Bowl 55 being set for Tampa itself.

No NFL team had ever played a Super Bowl in its home stadium. Thus does another factoid bite the dust, courtesy of the G.O.A.T. himself. Even if you cannot stand the guy, we’re way past the point where we can quibble about his greatness or his GOATness.

Put it this way: When Michael Jordan unretired for a second time to play for the Washington Wizards — he was 38 when the two-year comeback began, 40 when it ended — his new team finished below .500 both seasons and missed the playoffs. Tom Brady is 43. He’s going to the Super Bowl.

If you add Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana together, you get only eight Super Bowls. (All wins, though.) Brady by himself: 10 Super Bowls, six wins. If you add Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan together, you get three Super Bowls, two wins. Brady’s three Super losses have come by three points (David Tyree helmet catch); four points (Mario Manningham sideline catch) and eight points (the Philly Special). In those losses, Brady threw for 1,047 yards and six touchdowns against one interception.

And now you’re asking: Did you, M. Bradley, professional observer of sports, see this coming? Answer: no. I thought Brady was done at the end of last season, the final act of which was an interception returned for a clinching touchdown by the Titans in the wild card round. He appeared weak-armed and weary. Then he signs with the Buccaneers and spends the summer doing goofy things — practicing in a public park in violation of shutdown rules, showing up at the wrong house when he was trying to get a playbook from offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

I wasn’t sure the Bucs would be much better with Brady than with Jameis Winston, who when not throwing interceptions last season passed for a league-best 5,109 yards. As of Dec. 12, Tampa Bay was 7-5, having been twice routed by New Orleans and coming off consecutive home losses to the Rams and Chiefs. On Dec. 20, the Bucs trailed 17-0 at the half against the Falcons, whose travails this season were legendary. The Falcons had outgained Brady’s Bucs 261 yards to 60. At that moment, you wouldn’t have bet a dime on their Super chances.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throws under pressure from the Falcons during a 4th quarter come from behind victory over the Falcons Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throws under pressure from the Falcons during a 4th quarter come from behind victory over the Falcons Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The second half, as second halves against the Falcons tend to be, was different. The Bucs scored on their first five possessions. They won 31-27. Brady threw for 320 yards in two quarters. Tampa Bay hasn’t lost since. It went to New Orleans and ushered Drew Brees into probable retirement. It went to Lambeau Field and never trailed. This hasn’t all been Brady’s doing — the defense has been excellent, Leonard Fournette has found a second wind and the Bucs’ receivers are better than any crew TB12 had with New England — but his first half against the Packers called back the years. The touchdown to Scottie Miller at 0:01 was vintage.

Brady’s second half almost lost the game. He threw three interceptions on varying shades of bad passes. But a screen to Rob Gronkowski — Gronk’s only catch of the day — yielded a field goal that pushed the Bucs’ lead back to eight points, and then all Brady had to do was allow Matt LaFleur the chance to do as the Falcons had done on the last day Lafleur was their quarterbacks coach — blow a playoff game against Brady’s team. Kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Packers’ 8 while eight points down with 2:05 remaining is among the NFL’s all-time howlers. It wasn’t quite 28-3, but nothing will ever be 28-3.

We thought the comeback from 25 down was Brady’s career capper. He has since led his team to three more conference titles. (Another fact: Brady’s record in conference championships is 10-4.) He did it with Belichick, and now he has done without him. When you’re already the Greatest Of All Time, how do we characterize his latest feat — as the greatest trick ever performed by a reigning G.O.A.T.? He became the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl two years ago Pats beat the Rams here. He’s about to reset his own record.

Counting playoff games, Brady at 43 has thrown 47 touchdown passes. He’s not the force of nature that Aaron Rodgers is, but whose team won Sunday? The Bucs must now face the incomparable Patrick Mahomes, who was in kindergarten when Brady won his first Super Bowl. The Chiefs have won 25 of the past 26 games Mahomes has started. They’re as close to a colossus as we’ve seen in a while. But let’s remember how all this got started, way back in 2001.

The Patriots entered the Super Bowl against the swaggering Rams as a 14-point underdog. It wasn’t clear until midway through Super week whether Belichick would return to Drew Bledsoe, whose injury had opened the door for Brady, as his starter. The announcement came on Wednesday night: Belichick was sticking with Brady. The Pats won on Adam Vinatieri’s field goal. Two decades later, every player who played in that epic game has retired — except the GOAT, who never goes away. The GOAT never goes anywhere except the Super Bowl.

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