By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Sunday will not go down as an all-time performance from Tom Brady. Yet with all due respect to Jameis Winston, Brady was the best quarterback on the field. As a result, Brady's team is moving on championship weekend, with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line.
That such a sentence can even be uttered in January 2021 is beyond the scope of human understanding. What other conclusion could possibly account for the sheer nonchalance or even outright exasperation that a 43-year-old quarterback not only survived an NFL season but has somehow made it to the penultimate weekend of the year?
Certainly, the fact that Brady won a playoff game on divisional weekend is something that can easily become wallpaper for Americans who have seen that happen too many times to count. (He's now won 14 of them ... and lost just twice, meaning in a full NFL schedule against playoff teams, he's put together the third-best possible record. And he hasn't lost since 2010.)
And yes, to reiterate, Brady was merely good but not great in this one, and the three interceptions of counterpart Drew Brees and a forced fumble turned in by his Buccaneers defense were much bigger parts of this particular win. In that sense, Brady is not the A1 story coming out of the game.
But at the same time ... he is. He absolutely is.
While the statistical comparisons of Brady to every other quarterback to attempt to play at age 43 are simply overwhelming, there is one stat that stands out among all others: Games started.
Just four other quarterbacks have even tried to play the position at age 43 in the history of the NFL. Combined, they started zero games at the position.
Meanwhile in 2020, Brady just started his 18th game. He's won 13 of them. He's thrown 44 touchdowns and 12 picks. Next week will be his 19th start of the season -- in a year with no OTAs, no formal offseason, no preseason, a new offensive playbook, a new head coach, new teammates, and a new offensive system -- and if he wins that, he'll be heading to his 10th Super Bowl.
This is all so crazy.
That the latest installation overshadowed what would have been an impressive feat in and of itself -- a fellow quarterback starting a playoff game days after his own 42nd birthday -- merely speaks to the way that Brady has forever shifted how people will view what's possible for quarterbacks over 40. Yet even if that's the case, there's sure to be a marked difference between trying to emulate post-40 Brady and actually pulling it off. Nobody is likely to ever come close.
That part of it, though, is not yet known. What is established now is that even at age 43, Tom Brady will be where he's been in 13 of his previous 18 years as a starting quarterback: playing on championship weekend.
It's just absurd.
And while the Buccaneers' defense (294 yards allowed, four forced turnovers), running backs (125 yards on 30 carries) and special teams (3-for-3 on field goals, 3-for-3 on PATs) will get the lion's share of credit for this win, don't let it get lost that in the second half and specifically in the fourth quarter, Brady was as good as he needed to be in order to win the football game.
The turnaround for Brady can be traced to the two-minute warning in the first half. After a dropped pass from Leonard Fournette on a second-and-7 at the Tampa Bay 21-yard line, Brady was an abysmal 4-for-12 for 35 yards. His team trailed 13-10, and with New Orleans set to get the ball in the second half, Tampa couldn't afford to punt the ball back to the Saints, who still had two timeouts.
On the first play out of the two-minute warning, Brady went right back to Fournette, who scampered to gain eight yards and move the chains. Fournette would account for 40 total yards on that drive, with Brady completing six of his nine passes for 58 yards, converting two third downs through the air and coming oh-so-close to capping it off with a touchdown. A field goal before halftime tied the game at 13-all.
Brady and the Bucs' offense didn't respond well to a go-ahead touchdown drive from New Orleans to start the second half. After moving the chains just once, Brady threw into traffic on third down and was fortunate to have avoided a turnover. Instead of a pick, the Bucs punted. Antoine Winfield Jr. forced a fumble from Jared Cook on the next possession, and Brady made sure that the Saints weren't going to get away with a gaffe like that on a stage like this.
Taking over at the Saints' 40-yard line, Brady lofted a poss to a wide-open Cameron Brate for 19 yards. Ronald Jones ran for 10 yards, then for five, and on a third-and-5 from the 6-yard line, Brady waited for Fournette to get himself open against a linebacker. The resulting touchdown pass was too easy.
Tampa's defense forced a punt, after which Brady -- with some serious help from rookie Tyler Johnson -- converted a third-and-11 to avoid the same fate.
Three plays later, on a third-and-5, Brady completed his longest pass of the night:
They'd have to settle for a go-ahead field go on that drive, and they were fortunate to even have that opportunity. Brady's third-down throw to Scotty Miller was nearly picked off by Marshon Lattimore. It wasn't. Brees' pass on the next possession was, thus giving the ball back to Tampa at the New Orleans 20-yard line.
Looking for the knockout punch, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for a 14-yard gain. After a Ronald Jones run got the ball to the 1-yard line, Brady took care of the rest himself.
With under six minutes to go, a two-possession lead was likely going to be enough for the Bucs to win. A Brees interception on the Saints' next possession guaranteed it. Brady converted a third-and-8 with a 14-yard connection with Chris Godwin, and a five-yard run by Fournette on a third-and-3 allowed the Bucs to kneel out the final seconds of this one.
Aside from his 199 passing yards to match his draft spot some 21 years ago, Brady's stat line wouldn't jump out at anyone. But after that critical moment at the two-minute warning before halftime, in the biggest game of the year, on the road against a team that had made him look terrible twice during the regular season and again on this grand stage, Brady went 14-for-21 for 164 yards with one touchdown through the air and one game-clinching touchdown on the ground.
He did what he had to do to win the football game. More often than not, that's what he does.
"There are only four teams left. We're one of them," Brady said after the victory, his 32nd in the playoffs. "It's tough to get to this point."
If anybody would know that to be true, it would be Brady. But he sure has a funny way of letting us know.
At some point, the run will end. But not yet. For now, it's just a matter of marveling at a run that already was the greatest in history yet somehow continues to grow more preposterous seemingly every time this man takes the field.
Nobody's ever won like Brady, and nobody ever will. But we already knew that years ago. He's moved on from winning football games to reinventing what's possible for quarterbacks of a certain age. He's doing his part. Now it's on us to try to comprehend it.
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