The legend was forged in the snow 16 years ago on a frigid New England night that ended in controversy. The Patriots were led by a 24-year-old quarterback, a sixth-round pick who never won sole possession of the snaps in college yet somehow managed to keep the Patriots’ franchise passing leader off the field when he returned from injury. Unseating Drew Bledsoe was the first sign of Tom Brady’s greatness.
On Jan. 19, 2002, the Patriots trailed the Raiders by three with 1:50 left in a divisional playoff game. Brady feigned a pass and tucked his arm as Charles Woodson closed in. The ball popped out. Oakland recovered. New England appeared to be beaten.
But, because officials ruled that Brady was attempting a forward pass, the Patriots kept the ball. Brady set up a tying field goal. In overtime, he completed his first playoff comeback — a signature of his illustrious career.
Entering Super Bowl LII on Sunday in Minneapolis, Brady has directed 11 game-winning drives in the postseason, the most of all time and nearly double the total for the next man on the list. More than any other quarterback, more than any other team, Brady and the Patriots require 60 minutes or more of perfection from an opponent to be beaten. That’s the task the Eagles face Sunday.
Brady’s list of clinching drives in playoff games begins with the “tuck rule game” and stretches over 17 seasons. Five Super Bowl titles are embedded between the bookends. Arguably the most memorable was last year’s Houdini act, a rally from a 28-3 second-half deficit against the Falcons.
Just two weeks ago, Brady tossed two touchdowns after the Patriots trailed the Jaguars by 10 in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship. In the seven Super Bowls that Brady has started, only the Giants have been able to stamp out his comeback bids.
“You can never have a safe lead with (No.) 12 at the helm,” Jacksonville safety Tashaun Gipson told AP. “… That’s Tom Brady, the greatest to ever lace up the cleats at the quarterback position.”
That’s why Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson, less than a week removed from beating the Vikings with his own unlikely starter at quarterback, said the Eagles couldn’t afford to be entranced by the New England mystique.
“You know what? If I make this all about them, we’re in trouble,” Pederson told reporters.
As much as New England’s ability to summon comebacks seems mystical and zombie-like, it’s firmly rooted in the workman’s mentality. That comes from Bill Belichick, who distills the poetry in victory down to, “Do your job.”
For 17 seasons, through a litany of distractions including Deflategate and reports of internal strife this year, the Patriots’ meticulous coach has them prepared for every possible scenario. In the Super Bowl three year ago, Malcolm Butler sealed the game with a goal-line interception against a quick slant he’d practiced defending that week.
Meanwhile, at age 40, Brady has ensured that no one has done to him what he did to Bledsoe.
Tom Brady has more game-winning drives — breaking a tie or overcoming a deficit after the third quarter -— in the playoffs than any other quarterback in NFL history. Here’s a look at the top of the list.
1. Tom Brady (Patriots); 11 winning drives in the playoffs
2. John Elway (Broncos); 6 winning drives in the playoffs
T3. Eli Manning (Giants); 5 winning drives in the playoffs
T3. Joe Montana (49ers/Chiefs) 5 winning drives in the playoffs
T5. Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) 4 winning drives in the playoffs
T5. Dan Marino (Dolphins) 4 winning drives in the playoffs
T5. Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) 4 winning drives in the playoffs
T5. Russell Wilson (Seahawks) 4 winning drives in the playoffs