I spent much of Saturday afternoon screaming at my television, losing my mind over what seemed to be yet another playoff failure by Tom Brady and my beloved Patriots.
And then, something truly remarkable happened — the New England Patriots’ supposedly much-improved defense finally decided to show up at Gillette Stadium, Tom Brady turned into Super Tom Terrific once more, and in probably the most thrilling playoff game I have ever witnessed, the Patriots outlasted their own personal playoff nemesis (the team known as the Baltimore Ravens) in epic fashion, 35-31.
I was born in Boston and have probably lived through the single most productive and successful stretch in the city’s long and storied sporting history, with the Patriots, the Celtics, the Red Sox and the Bruins having won titles in football, basketball, baseball, and hockey respectively – all in the last 15 years! It bears nothing that the poor New England Revolution have reached the MLS Cup finals five times and lost each time. Their postseason curse notwithstanding, Boston sports have totally pampered and spoiled me.
And yet, there is a sense of what could have been, at least when the Patriots are concerned. The 2007 New England Patriots had the greatest regular season in the modern era, rolling along to an 18-0 record before running into Eli Manning and the New York Giants (another longtime nemesis) in the Super Bowl, falling flat on the biggest of stages. The 2011 Patriots also bumped into Big Game Eli in the Super Bowl, falling flat again. Along the way, despite Tom Brady’s tremendous 19-8 record in the playoffs, the Pats have been bounced in sad-sack fashion numerous times, with the aura of invincibility and inevitability that characterized the early-2000s Patriots fading away with each successive loss.
So much has been written about the fallacy of throwing too much blame, or credit, at the feet of the quarterback of any NFL team. After all, there are at least 21 other bodies (and assuredly more) that see the field over the course of any football game, and it takes a concerted team effort to triumph in the playoffs, where games are truly decided by inch-thin margins. Just ask the Detroit Lions, or the Dallas Cowboys, sent home by the thinnest of margins just these last two weeks, or heck, even the Patriots, whose perfect season was shot
out of the sky by David Tyree and his sticky fingertips.
But in a larger sense, as the face, heart and soul of a team, the quarterback faces the music for the results, good or bad. And with every camera facing the quarterback from the moment the center snaps the ball until he gets rid of it, every mistake, every misstep and every error is magnified hundredfold under the bright lights of January and February football. Tom Brady? His reputation as the NFL’s clutchest golden boy was built under the success of three Super Bowls rings in four years. That reputation was gleefully torn down by critics as he flamed out in the playoffs on a number of occasions — against Peyton Manning’s squad in that epic AFC Championship game characterized by the Colts’ incredible comeback at the RCA Dome, against the Ravens on two separate occasions, against the Broncos on two separate occasions, against the Giants in two Super Bowls.
The real truth probably lies somewhere closer to the middle — as the sample sizes grow larger, it becomes impossible for an unsustainable run of success to continue. Just ask Joe Flacco, whose truly insane playoff run came to an inglorious end with two ill-advised picks against the Patriots. For Brady, his early successes and his later struggles still converge to represent a superlatively skilled quarterback, whose accuracy, poise, pocket presence, coolness under pressure and passion for the game cannot be denied. Against a fierce Baltimore pass rush that planted him on his backside after nearly every throw, he was sublime, dissecting the large cushions that the Ravens presented him while also nailing a number of downfield throws, most notably the absolute dime he dropped into Brandon Lafell’s grateful hands to win the game.
Watching Peyton Manning try to play through a torn quad muscle the next day was an exercise in reality — to see such a legendary quarterback struggle so much, potentially in the final game of a long and storied career, brought into perspective just how lucky my generation has been to see such brilliant performers dish out their magic for so long. The magic carpet ride could end at any time, and what a ride it has been!
I have no illusions about these Patriots — should they beat the Andrew Luck-led Colts this coming Sunday, they will either face the ever-dangerous Green Bay Packers, led by still-amazing-on-one-leg Aaron Rodgers, or the patently terrifying Seattle Seahawks, led by Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Bruce Irvin, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and a snarling cast of defenders that have me soiling myself already. Regardless of how the season shakes out, let it be said: Brady was simply magnificent, as were the rest of this resilient New England team. May the football gods grant us many more viewings of such greatness.
Vignesh Venkataraman’s only wish for the new year is to be able to kiss the feet of Brady, fan him with a palm frond while feeding him grapes and then, as a former high school star quarterback, get tips from the master himself. If you have any connections with said master, please email him at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.