"It's not so much about what we've accomplished in the grand scheme of things, or how it's looked at in terms of history. Weíre taking them one at a time. We know how hard it is.Ē -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Feb. 6, 2005
Itís been nearly 10 years now since ďthe last one,Ē which always seemed like it was destined to merely be ďthe next one.Ē
On the night the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-21, in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., New England was universally heralded as an NFL dynasty.
It was the franchiseís third Super Bowl title in four years, led by a 27-year-old quarterback who ran his career playoff record to a remarkable 9-0 after throwing two touchdown passes and no interceptions against the Eagles, who put up more of a fight than people tend to remember.
New Englandís nine consecutive postseason wins, dating back to the Snow Bowl against the Oakland Raiders at old Foxboro Stadium in 2002, tied Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers from 1961-67. Brady tied Bart Starr for most consecutive postseason wins by a starting quarterback. It was the first of three Super Bowl appearances that Brady didnít win the gameís MVP honors, which this time went to wide receiver Deion Branch (133 yards receiving).
Brady had gone that entire postseason without throwing an interception, something he hadnít done since the previous seasonís Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers in Houston, and only three times in his young playoff career, an 11:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio that spoke to many of head coach Bill Belichickís football philosophies.
He would add one more playoff victory to the perfection, a 28-3 wild card win over the Jacksonville Jaguars the following January, giving him a 10-0 postseason mark before inevitability struck the following week, a 27-13 loss in Denver to the Broncos that gave Brady his first taste of postseason defeat.
"It's so depressing and it makes you appreciate what we've accomplished,Ē he said that night, Jan. 14, 2006.
"It's been a great run.Ē
Ten years later, and itís still a great run for these New England Patriots, 12-4 and possessing the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
But itís been a football lifetime since they have hoisted a Lombardi Trophy, with two chances having come up empty against the New York Giants. A decade removed, ďthe next oneĒ remains ďthe last one," even as the Patriots have remained the class of the NFL, a model of dominant consistency for 14 seasons running.
Yet the fourth ring has eluded them twice. In heartbreaking, throw-up-in-your-fist fashion.
Brady threw two interceptions in his first playoff loss in Denver, one fewer than he had tossed in his previous 10 playoff games combined. In the 15 postseason games that followed, he threw 17 more, three against the San Diego Chargers, twice, and three more in a wild card loss to the Baltimore Ravens, perhaps the most embarrassing defeat on Bradyís playoff resume, which also featured a career-low 49.1 quarterback rating.
Since his 10-0 mark, Brady and the Patriots have gone just 8-8 in the playoffs, ranging from one-and-dones against Baltimore and the New York Jets to a pair of Super Bowl losses. In those 16 games, Brady has thrown 29 touchdown passes, but with this time with 19 interceptions to go along with them.
When he was racking up Super Bowls with ease, he had zero multiple interception games to speak of.
Heís had six in the postseason since.
For sure, the Patriots of the past decade have been a regular season machine that sputters to dust come January and February, a .444 playoff winning percentage since 2008 that has kept the annual ďAFC East ChampsĒ T-shirts from becoming rags throughout New England more often than not.
But even though Brady has had some memorable postseason gaffes to his credit, he isnít the problem. Itís just that when you laud credit on the quarterback for being perfect at one point in his career, itís sort of hypocritical to not heap the negative on him as well, isnít it?
Even the most stalwart pom-pom-waving, No. 12-wearing aficionados would have to admit reality; Brady has not been a great postseason quarterback over the last decade. Heís been inconsistent and has notably made un-Brady-like decisions, ones he would rarely make during his teamís regular season runs.
Even in some of the wins, Brady has been an enigma in regard to the final result. In the AFC title victory against Baltimore, it took kicker Billy Cundiffís legendary missed field goal to erase the fact that Brady threw two interceptions and had a QB rating of only 57.5.
In the AFC Championship game against the Chargers in 2008, an injured Brady could have cost his teamís perfect campaign a game early with a ho-hum two touchdown, three interception showing that said more about San Diegoís ineptitude than it did the Patriotsí dominance in the game. A year earlier, it took Troy Brownís strip sack to secure the fact that nobody would remember Bradyís 27-of-51 afternoon, complete with three more picks.
But is it Brady's fault the Patriots are only 9-8 since their last Super Bowl victory?
Hardly, and the problem being fixed is precisely why the Patriots very well should win their fourth title in a little more than a month.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, over Bradyís first 10 postseason appearances, New Englandís defense allowed an average of 15.8 points per game and got a sack every 13.2 dropbacks. In his past 16 playoff games, the defense has allowed an average of 22.9 points per game and got a sack every 18.2 dropbacks.
During the 10-0 stretch, the Pats defense allowed 20 or more points only three times; to the Panthers and Eagles in the Super Bowl, and to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 41-27 AFC Championship game blowout.
Dating back to the AFC title game win over the Ravens (23-20), the defense has allowed 20 or more points in six straight playoff games, culminating in a 26-16 loss in the Championship game in Denver last January, when New England gave up 507 yards to the Broncos, the most they've allowed in any game -- regular season or postseason -- under Belichick.
That hit a very familiar nerve with the New England coach.
When Brady and the Patriots lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship game, Belichick responded by giving Brady the tools to be more like his rival. Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth gave Brady weapons heíd never been privy to in any previous season, shunning the notion that even he could get things accomplished with Doug Gabriel and Reche Caldwell. The Patsí new high-flying attack led them to perfection, until they met the Giants in Glendale, Ariz., of course.
When the Patriots lost their first Super Bowl under Belichick, their playoff record under Brady was still a nifty 14-3. But somewhere along the way, the other side of the ball took a back seat under the defensive-minded Belichick, and the Patriots became something of a wild card when it came to January. Theyíre just 4-5 in the postseason since being David Tyreeíd in the desert, but it was indeed another playoff loss to Manning, Belichickís first since the Coltsí raging comeback seven years earlier, that prompted him to alter his philosophy once again.
This time, Brady didnít get Emmanuel Sanders. He got Brandon LaFell. The team didnít sign running back Knowshon Moreno. They quietly and unceremoniously picked up Jonas Gray and re-acquired LeGarrette Blount.
But after losing out on Aqib Talib - to the Broncos, no less - Belichick reached out to and landed cornerback Darrelle Revis, the best at his position, in the prime of his career, signing him to a two-year, $32 million deal. The team signed Brandon Browner, an intimidating force in the secondary coming off a Super Bowl win with the Seattle Seahawks (and a four-game suspension for PED violations, as it turned out).
Chandler Jones became a force. Dontía Hightower and Jamie Collins emerged as ultimate difference-makers. Vince Wilfork rebounded from early-season hiccups to solidify the defensive line. Even the loss of Jerod Mayo did little to deter the ferocity of the Patriots defense heading into the postseason, not having allowed a second-half touchdown in six straight games to end the regular season.
It was why they won going back a decade-plus. Itís why they are pretty damned likely to win again in 2015.
The Patriots have seemingly fixed a fatal flaw. Time to finally test it out on the playoff stage.
"This is what we play for," Brady told WEEI on Monday. "This is what you work hard for. This is what it all comes down to as an athlete. You can't put yourself in a better situation than this. Now you've just got to go and take advantage of it."
Finally, a playoff chase that won't rest on Brady' shoulders.
Just as it was in the good, old days.
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