Third and seven. New England Patriots are losing 27-10 to Tennessee Titans. The ball is snapped to the 47 yard-line. Tom Brady hands it off to Julian Edelman initiating a trick-play identical to the Philly Special, which was executed so brilliantly against them nine months earlier in the Super Bowl. This time the ball is thrown to the 41-year-old. He stumbles and collides into Wesley Woodward short of the first down.
In that moment, the ageless quarterback looked every day of 41. The immortal looked mortal. The Patriots would go onto lose 10-34, with Brady finishing with a QB rating of 70.6 and 21 of 41 in pass completions. He threw no touchdowns and was sacked three times. In fact, he had the worst rating of any QB against the blitz after Week 10.
But the struggles for Brady weren’t limited to the blitz. He also had difficulties throwing his famous deep ball, ranking 24th in the league for deep passing accuracy after the half-way mark of the season.
Eight weeks later, Brady said “I just like winning” when he addressed the media after perfectly executing a 41-28 win over the Los Angeles Chargers to send his time to their eighth consecutive AFC Championship game. Despite Rob Gronkowski’s body failing him, Edelman’s drug suspension, Chris Hogan’s untrustworthiness and Josh Gordon’s unreliability, the quarterback still found a way.
The lack of elite receivers didn’t prevent the Patriots opening a play-off game with four consecutive touchdowns – the first time since Indianapolis Colts managed it in 2013.
Brady struggled with a knee strain this season and the ball has not been coming out of his hand as smoothly as he would like, but he continues to adapt. His versatility and execution makes him one of the greatest athletes of all time. He has proven again this season, if you can’t get to him, he will systematically pick you off on every play of every drive.
What cannot be ignored is the genius play-calling from New England’s offensive co-ordinator Josh McDaniels, who manages to create a unique game plan every week. His relationship with Brady and head coach Bill Belichick has helped set-up a match with this season’s MVP favourite, Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City Chiefs.
Going into Sunday the narrative will be dominated by the idea of the changing of the guard. Mahomes has already exceeded so many expectations with extraordinary athleticism and play-making ability to help make the Chiefs the most productive offence in the league. However, the key will be if Dee Ford and Justin Houston can apply pressure on Brady, otherwise both teams could exceed 50 points.
The 14-time Pro Bowler may not be the best quarterback in the league anymore but his demise was definitely overstated. The AFC Championship game on Sunday will be the first time in 70 matches where the Patriots will be the underdog with Brady starting. Will you doubt the five-time Super Bowl champion again?