Posted January 24, 2018
When your team is down by ten with eleven minutes left in a playoff game, you are supposed to feel stressed and anguished. You are supposed to feel overwhelmed by the sensation of time unstoppably ticking away. But if in that moment, all you can muster is a sense of mild discomfort, of moderate impatience for your team to throw things into gear, then maybe you just don’t care about football all that much. Or maybe your quarterback is Tom Brady.
When that moment occurred late in the Patriots-Jaguars game this weekend in New England, if you could have polled everyone in that stadium, and asked them who they thought was more likely to win that game, the team trailing and sputtering or the one with a two-score lead, the majority would have taken the side that was losing.
This is, in a word, insane. For most of the game, the Patriots offense had done nothing. In over three quarters of play, they had scored ten points, and now they would need to score just as much in the final frame to even have a shot at a tie. In the history of the NFL playoffs, a team had come back from ten points down in the fourth quarter to win only ten times in over 50 years.
But then again, three of those times were Tom Brady.
The drive started off going in the wrong direction. An early sack soon made it 3rd & 18. And even then, it didn’t seem like this would be the Jaguars’ year. Only that the comeback was going to require a punt, then New England converting for touchdowns on their final two possessions of the game. The feeling was, again, mild discomfort. Then Brady found Danny Amendola running a deep route across the middle for 20 yards, the team had its first down, and everyone in Foxboro knew what was coming next.
Touchdown, both teams traded turnovers on downs, a second march down the field, and then there the Patriots were, a few yards away from a lead after eight minutes earlier staring down the barrel of the gun. Tom Brady snapped the ball, dropped back, and if you looked at him in that moment, you would never know there were muscle-bound, 350-pound men trying to kill him or 50,000 screaming fans or millions more watching on TV or 12 stitches in his throwing hand from an injury suffered earlier that week, or that he was facing the league’s best pass defense, or that his top receiver had been in the locker room since a couple of minutes before halftime with an injury. There stood a man calmly waiting for the split-second window when his receiver would be open along the thin back line of the end zone. And there sat a fan base, certain he would find him.
And as it happened, if you scanned the field, you would find celebration on one side and frustration on the other, but nowhere would you see surprise. Even the Jaguars head coach had spent most of the fourth quarter wearing the look of a man with his head in the guillotine, waiting for the blade.
It wasn’t all Tom Brady. There was Amendola, making clutch reception after clutch reception. There was Stephon Gilmore entering the matrix as he flew through the air and deflected a potentially game-altering throw. There was Dion Lewis going nine yards when he should have gotten only three to ensure the Jaguars wouldn’t touch the ball again.
And yet, you barely noticed them with Brady on the field. He is the Golden State Warriors. The guy that, when he’s down by five, it feels like he’s up by four. The guy who you know you’ll be hearing from before time runs out.
He is the inevitable.
Early in his career, Brady was labeled “clutch.” Unshakeable in the biggest moments. He led a game-winning drive in the snow in overtime in his first playoff game, then he took his squad down the field to beat St. Louis and become the biggest underdog to win a Super Bowl ever. Then he added another game-winner in the championship against Carolina two years later.
It was a level of play with everything at stake that we hadn’t seen in years. Maybe ever. And yet, recently, it’s become apparent that that was just his warmup act. The miracles of his early postseasons were short passes strung together to set up Adam Vinatieri field goals, aided by the Tuck Rule and a Panthers kickoff that bounced out of bounds and gave him the ball at the 40. What’s happened over the last few years has been something bigger. Drive after drive that finished in the end zone when his team needed them most.
In 2015, he overcame two separate 14-point deficits against Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs. Two games later, facing the top ranked defense in the league, Tom Brady again drove down the field for back-to-back scores in the final period to notch his fourth Super Bowl win. Then, of course, there was the comeback against the Falcons. Down 28-3, deep in the third quarter, the Patriots scored, setting up an extra point that somehow their kicker missed. Meaning now they wouldn’t just need a pair of touchdowns on top of a field goal, they’d have to go for two and convert each time as well. So they did.
When the game went to overtime and the Patriots won the coin toss, electing to receive, it was over.
Even in an off year in 2016, there was the comeback that almost was. Playing in Denver, the Patriots offensive line looked as bad as it ever had. Brady got hit 20 times, eventually appearing so shaken he could hear the footsteps of the coming tacklers even on the plays when they were nowhere near him. But with two minutes left, there was Brady, shaking off those 20 hits and marching down the field. Converting on fourth down and eventually finding his favorite target in the end zone to bring the match within two. When he couldn’t convert on the two-point attempt it was stunning to everyone there.
Vince Lombardi once said, “We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time,” which seems a fitting way of putting it. Even in the years they fell short, it never felt like the Patriots lost. Only that they ran out of time.
New England is going to the Super Bowl again. And it’s possible that their luck will run out. That the Eagles defense will give ‘em hell, that Nick Foles will play like Carson Wentz again, and that Rob Gronkowski won’t look himself after his most recent injury. But even if that happens, and the clock is ticking down and the Patriots are losing, no one in the stadium will think it’s over. Tom Brady will be there on the sideline, waiting for his chance to take the field. And the Philadelphia fans will be holding their breath, waiting for the inevitable.
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