ATLANTA — No matter how much electrolyte water he drinks or how many gladiator camps he runs, there will eventually come a time where Tom Brady is too diminished as an athlete to effectively play quarterback in the NFL.
He is 41, after all, already long past the expiration date of the greats. At some point, everyone hits a decline.
And make no mistake, there were times this season when Brady, frankly, looked like something less than he once was. There were games where he just couldn’t quite make many of the throws that had vaulted him past Dan Marino, John Elway and Peyton Manning as the best to ever play the position. There was reason to doubt whether he still had enough juice to win another Super Bowl. That’s a nice way of saying he looked old.
But Brady, apparently, had us all fooled. Because when it came time to win No. 6, when he sniffed the chance to celebrate one more time, he grabbed it with the full force of his talent and drove the New England Patriots to a 13-3 victory that may go down as his greatest achievement yet.
“It is an honor to get to play with a guy like that,” said receiver Julian Edelman. “He has six Super Bowls now, so it’s pretty insane.”
Insane may not even begin to describe it.
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Though nearly two decades of watching the Patriots reconstruct themselves over and over with Brady and coach Bill Belichick as the constants, you learn never to write them off. That’s why a lot of the “Patriots-against-the-world” stuff that was coming out of New England’s locker room as they entered the postseason came off as contrived motivational tactics. Nobody actually thought New England had suddenly become an average football team or couldn’t win a Super Bowl.
But make no mistake, this was not Brady’s best season. Far from it. He threw more interceptions (11) than he had since 2013 and his quarterback rating dipped to 97.7, putting 11th among NFL starters this season. New England’s five losses all came against teams that missed the playoffs, and those games often looked ugly for Brady. He put up just 10 points against teams like the Titans and Lions, lost to dysfunctional Jacksonville and even in a December home win against Buffalo threw for 126 yards and two interceptions.
At that point, Peak Brady was in the rear-view mirror. The question was whether the 41-year old version could still make enough of the tough throws to get the job done in the playoffs.
“These guys, they’re competitors. When things don’t go well, they take it hard, but they always have the resolve to come back and try to fix it and get it right,” Belichick said. “We had a couple (bad) stretches. But I always felt good about where we were.”
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That’s the comfort of knowing Brady still has a level he can reach when the pressure’s on that few quarterbacks can duplicate. When the postseason came, Brady poured it on the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round, out-dueled Patrick Mahomes in a Kansas City shootout and came up with the fourth-quarter drives he needed in the Super Bowl to finally break the best defense he’d faced all year.
“I just felt like we needed to grind it out all night,” Brady said. “We weren’t very good on third down, we got stopped on fourth down. We moved it, but we couldn’t sustain it. We obviously could have played better offensively, but the reality in these games is you just have to find a way to win and we played well in the end.”
For much of the night, Brady was uncomfortable. He threw an interception on his first pass attempt of the game. He was pressured constantly and couldn’t get anything going vertically, resorting to a lot of underneath stuff to Edelman that worked — but not well enough to sustain drives all the way into the end zone.
But then with 9:49 remaining, he stirred memories of Peak Brady. In quick succession, he hit Rob Gronkowski for 18 yards, then back to Edelman for 13, then squeezed one to Rex Burkhead, all of which set up a 29-yard connection down the left sideline to Gronkowski. One play later, New England had a 10-3 lead with 7 minutes left.
Though it took one more drive to completely put the game away, that was the essence of Brady at age 41: He doesn’t have to be the Patriots’ best player all of the time, but he still can be enough of the time.
“We have been in these situations so many times in big games and we don’t really blink,” receiver Chris Hogan said. “We know how to execute in these situations. That’s what it comes down to.”
At some point, that will no longer be true. Perhaps it’s next year. Maybe it won’t happen for another three or four. But Brady took retirement off the table at the start of the week and reiterated after the game that he intends to come back and try for No. 7.
“Last year was tough on us, but to be able to win, it’s just incredible,” Brady said, referring to the Patriots’ 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. “What’s next is Monday and some rest. I’m looking forward to getting some rest.”
Surprisingly, there weren’t many “told-you-sos” in the Patriots locker room. Mostly, it was just an appreciation for the opportunity to do this one more time. As much as they can fight to keep that championship window open, it will eventually close. Heck, it almost did this year.
But perhaps the night’s most sentiment was on a black t-shirt worn by center David Andrews. It had silhouettes of both Belichick and Brady’s faces with two words underneath: “Still Here.”
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
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