Brady's competitive spirit alive and well

Michael Silver

PITTSBURGH – Late in the third quarter of a Steeltown smackdown that reverberated throughout the football world, Tom Brady(notes) struck a pose.

There was nothing Hollywood about it, no pretty-boy overtones to be found. Standing in the back of the north end zone at Heinz Field, face to face with Steelers fans fuming over their team's 20-point deficit, the New England Patriots' impassioned quarterback celebrated his 3-yard touchdown run by spiking the football like Shawn Kemp throwing down a tomahawk dunk. Then Brady, in a fit of brash defiance, stared into the stands and scowled.

It was part Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, part Ray Lewis(notes) in any visiting venue. And it felt so good.

"I was fired up," Brady said as he stood by his locker after leading the Patriots to a 39-26 victory over the Steelers on Sunday night in a clash of AFC powers. "It's a great place to play, with great fans – a great football city. They love their Steelers. And it's great to come in here and play a good game and step up to the challenge. It's an emotional game."

That it is – and on this night, against this opponent, the primary emotion experienced by Brady was impudence, in a we-just-punched-you-in-the-neck-and-stole-your-lunch-money kind of way.

For those people too caught up in Brady's caricature to understand the steely enforcer within, understand that the man views himself in starker, less-polished terms than most people will ever know.

Go ahead and talk about his supermodel wife, bemoan his offseason affinity for life in L.A. or compare his haircut to Justin Bieber's. Knock yourself out, but you're missing the obvious: In his heart and at his core Brady is a football player, fierce and proud and trying to eviscerate his opponent on every level. He also happens to be one of the best quarterbacks ever to live, and during Sunday's nationally televised clash – coming off what he regarded as an utterly embarrassing performance – Brady merely had one of the most impressive games of his ridiculously proficient career.

Let's get the numbers out of the way: Brady completed 30 of 43 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns, all to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes). He was not sacked or intercepted, and he had complete command of a game most people expected the Pats (7-2) to lose.

"He did what he always does against us," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes) said of Brady, who is 4-1 against Pittsburgh in the regular season and started two victorious AFC championship games for the Pats in this stadium, though he got hurt in one and gave way to Drew Bledsoe before returning to quarterback New England to the first of three Super Bowl triumphs. "He just always gets us. [Sunday night], he was himself."

Brady was a man trying to flush the memories of the previous Sunday's 34-14 defeat to the Cleveland Browns, and he was a statement-making machine who jumped all over the Steelers (6-3) and never let up. He yelled at his own linemen ("When you're in the heat of battle tempers flare up; we try to humor him when possible," tackle Matt Light(notes) said) and channeled his head coach's prickly ire and did the kind of things on the football field that only he and Peyton Manning(notes) can, while even their perceived peers watch in awe.

On New England's first drive, Brady took the Pats 70 yard on eight plays, producing the game's first points on a 19-yard strike to Gronkowski that was so good, it should have been immediately sealed in a time capsule and propelled into space for future life forms to appreciate.

I know it looked good on television; in the stadium, it looked like Joe Montana on HGH. Seriously, Brady's pass over the middle was so crisp, accurate and, for lack of a better word, fierce, that I literally started laughing in the press box. This guy supposedly lacks arm strength? He was drafted, where, 199th overall, and was a fourth-stringer as a rookie?

"He made a great catch," Brady said of Gronkowski, which is like Emeril Lagasse saying that a diner at one of his famous New Orleans eateries took a great bite. "There's not a lot of room there. You've got to find the spot. Rob was going up against a smaller guy, and you know you always have a shot when that happens. Once he gets his hands on it, he's pretty special."

Of course, once the ball left Brady's hand, the quarterback was pretty sure what the outcome would be. "I was kind of looking, leaning side-to-side, to see if he was going to make the play," Brady said. "It was a huge catch. We keep talking about fast starts. That's how you start fast in a big game on the road."

There was plenty of salty talk at Patriots headquarters after the debacle in Cleveland, and the man in the hoodie was doing most of it. "You know how Coach [Bill] Belichick is," wideout Deion Branch(notes) said. "It wasn't smooth pickings. It started on Monday. We learned we can't just come slap it on the field and expect to win."

The defeat to the Browns generated plenty of reproachful chatter from outsiders as well. They pointed to the Pats' dismal defensive ranking (29th coming into Sunday's game) and charged that, after having sent Randy Moss(notes) to the Vikings last month (before, you know, he ended up with the Titans), the offense lacked a deep threat to create the requisite space for Brady to spread the ball to his crew of new toys.

Brady does some jawing after he scores.
(Jason Bridge/US Presswire)

With one sublime 45-yard strike to second-year speedster Brandon Tate(notes) down the middle of the field late in the third quarter, Brady seemed to be saying, I've got your deep threat right here.

Five plays later Brady snuck in from the 3-yard line, stepped away from a skirmish that broke out between the two teams and summoned every ounce of competitive rage in his 33-year-old body while spiking the ball to the turf.

"Was it a good one?" he asked me after the game. He was pleased to hear that he'd nailed the landing. "I felt the emotion, all week," he said. "I'm tired, man."

Perhaps, but don't sleep on these Patriots. Beginning with next Sunday's thank-you-football-gods meeting with Manning at Gillette Stadium, Brady will be pushing even harder, trying to put himself in a position to strike the most satisfying pose of all.

You know, one where he hoists the Lombardi under red, white and blue confetti. Yeah, that one.

THE HIGH FIVE …

It's fitting that the Bills got their first victory of the season against the Lions, the only NFL team to go 0-16 (two years ago) and now the not-so-proud owners of a league-record 25-game road losing streak. The Lions (2-7) battled, as they have during most of this frustrating campaign, closing to within 14-12 on Shaun Hill's(notes) 20-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson(notes) with 14 seconds left – the backup QB's third fourth-down completion on the drive – but failed to convert the two-point conversion after Hill inexplicably threw an extremely high ball out of the back of the end zone. And I've got to give some love to the suffering Bills fans who chanted, "Super Bowl, here we come!" at game's end. They'd have fit right in with my fellow "Rose Bowl"-chanting Cal fans during the dark years in the '80s and '90s.

David Garrard's(notes) wife is named Mary, so it was fitting that the underappreciated Jaguars quarterback delivered the implausible, 50-yard touchdown pass that beat the Texans 31-24 on the final play of Sunday's game. Huge for the Jags (5-4); huge bummer for the fading Texans (4-5) – and I can't help but think that Houston cornerback Glover Quin(notes), who batted the ball forward from the end zone into the waiting hands of Jacksonville wideout Mike Thomas(notes), was negatively impacted by years and years of watching Chris Berman and Tom Jackson scream "Knock It Down!" on their unparalleled postgame highlights packages. That might be the best call much of the time, but in this case, Quinn would have been better served to "Catch The Ball!" Instead, he becomes part of Hail Mary lore.

Cowboys 33, Giants 20: Yeah, we all saw that coming. I guess this means Dallas' locker room isn't inhabited by a bunch of overrated, gutless quitters, and New York's isn't full of indomitable, inevitable Super Bowl champs. It's mid-November. Let's go easy on the overreactions. Wait, what's that you say? Interim coach Jason Garrett is the greatest thing to hit Texas since oil? Hey, I'm as open to Garrett's head-coaching credentials as the next guy, but let's see how the Cowboys (2-7) respond to "success" over the next 10 days in home games against the Lions and Saints.

I've been an unabashed Cadillac Williams fan since our pre-draft breakfast at the Gadsden, Ala., Waffle House in 2005, and after about five minutes of watching the ferocity with which the former Auburn back ran as a Bucs rookie, I was convinced he was headed for stardom. Alas, Cadillac has been in the shop far too much during his six-year career, and it has taken inordinate amounts of drive, perseverance and courage for him to fight back from a pair of devastating patellar tendon tears in consecutive seasons. That's what made Williams' game-clinching, 45-yard touchdown run in Tampa Bay's 31-16 victory over the Panthers so momentous – it was his longest carry since he took a 71-yarder to the house in his first NFL game. Welcome back, Cadillac.

For the second consecutive week, Santonio Holmes(notes) was an overtime hero for the Jets, this time catching a Mark Sanchez(notes) pass in stride and racing ahead for a 37-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left in the fifth period to give New York a 26-20 victory over the Browns. And while a tie would have undoubtedly been Buddy Ryan's desired outcome while watching one son (Jets head coach Rex) coach against another (Browns defensive coordinator Rob), instead the franchise that had the more aggressive offseason was validated with a victory. Let's give some credit to general manager Mike Tannenbaum and owner Woody Johnson who, among other bold moves, swung a trade with the Steelers to acquire Holmes. He might be the NFL's most dangerous runner after the catch, and though he has had some off-the-field troubles, the Jets got him for a fifth-round draft pick. That's value.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

The Broncos sacked Cassel four times.
(Jack Dempsey/AP Photo)

1. Dark matter, dark energy, gravitational lensing and the warping of space-time around massive celestial objects.

2. What in the world is up with the Denver Broncos – or, for that matter, the AFC West. The Broncos, who in their previous home game at Invesco Field suffered a 59-14 bludgeoning at the hands of the Raiders, essentially did the same thing in reverse to the Chiefs on Sunday, racing to a 35-0 lead en route to a 49-29 victory. I guess it's a Mile High thing. (That's tensely contested overtime defeat to the Raiders in Oakland last week, could have been so flat for this game, but I do know who's positively giddy about the outcome: The San Diego Chargers. At 4-5, the Chargers now trail the Chiefs and Raiders by a single game and, remarkably, control their future. That's right – Norv Turner and the boys are poised to shake off the requisite sluggish start – and premature portrayals of their demise by yours truly and others – and get away with it yet again. At this point, I've stopped questioning it, at least until the Raiders, Chiefs or Broncos rise up and supply an alternate ending.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

Every since the early days of si.com, when my then-colleague Peter King made a weekly habit of updating readers on his daughters’ athletic endeavors, I’ve felt empowered to drop the occasional reference to one of my children’s sporting achievements. What can I say? I’m a proud dad, and I believe those of you who have kids that are competing or performing in any activity likely understand the gratification that comes from watching one of your own throw it all out there and learn about him/herself in the process. So last Friday when, as part of an item heralding the accomplishments of former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte’s(notes) daughter Abby, I mentioned that my freshman daughter had just been honored as most improved player at her high school field hockey banquet, I didn’t think it would inspire much of a reaction from anyone outside our family’s inner circle. What I definitely didn’t expect was an email from a Montreal-based reader devoted exclusively to the topic: "You really find a most improved player award something to boast about? Everyone knows that this is a token award given to the kid with little to no ability but who possesses plenty of enthusiasm. It is the quintessential throwing a dog a bone and no more than a ‘keep your chin up’ offering to a kid who sees very little actual game time but who keeps showing up to training."

OK, let’s indulge this esteemed critic of child-classification terminology for a moment and accept his premise that my daughter isn’t very good at sports. Is this really a point he feels good about driving home? Look, I get it: I’m an opinionated columnist who isn’t shy about ripping players, coaches, owners and others as I see fit, and impassioned, negative responses are part of the gig. I get called an idiot on a daily basis, sometimes even with proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, and I’m fine with that. But this is personal, so bear with me. Look, I’m cool with any of you thrashing me for not picking your favorite team to win a given game, or rating it lower than you’d like me to, or being a "hater" by mentioning its failures, shortcomings or organizational dysfunction. And feel free to hate me for my politics, or my oversized eyebrows, or having a job which, on Sunday, required me to sit in a Pittsburgh-area sports bar watching seven simultaneous games with an enlarged Sports Illustrated cover bearing my oversized name displayed behind the bar. Dissing my kids, however, is a game-changer. So know this: As anyone who has ever watched any of my three children play any sport can attest, they go hard, compete with passion and fight until the final whistle, out or buzzer. For the record, my daughter got a whole lot of love beyond "most improved" at that field-hockey banquet, and it’s not even close to her best sport, and I’m going to stop now at the risk of embarrassing her.

Meanwhile, since I’m all riled up, this is what my 11-year-old son did over the weekend in his ridiculously resilient U-12 soccer team’s season-ending tournament: Saturday, down 1-0 in a bracket game his team needed to win to stay alive, against an opponent that had crushed it during the regular season, he scored twice in the final seven minutes to help the Aqua Dragons reach the semifinals. On Sunday morning he completed a comeback from a 4-1 deficit by blasting home a game-tying goal with five minutes left in regulation before his team fell in overtime. And in the third-place game Sunday afternoon, he finished off another three-goal comeback with a tying goal four minutes from the end of regulation. To be clear: I’m not saying he’s the second coming of Pele, or that competitive sports will necessarily be part of his life after he leaves my house. But on this particular weekend, whether I was watching him in person or checking texts while nervously pacing through the Heinz Field press box, he had me speechless and short of breath and, by Sunday evening, so choked up I had to hole up in a quiet corner to gather myself – and he and his little teammates learned more about fighting through adversity and refusing to quit than I could ever hope to teach.

TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Fire the coach and win. So predictable. Research it."
– Text Sunday evening from former Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe. (I was too deadline-pressed – or lazy – to research it. But perhaps I should have before making my World's Simplest Pool pick on Friday.

"Tell me we didn't just miss a 29 yard field goal to lose by 2 to the #1 team in the country … I'm in Chicago and we didn't get the game on tv"
– Text Saturday night from Vikings kicker (and fellow Cal alum) Ryan Longwell(notes) following the Golden Bears' 15-13 defeat to top-ranked Oregon.

"That makes me ill …"
– Follow-up text from Longwell after I informed him that, before missing the 29-yard kick early in the fourth quarter, Giorgio Tavecchio had a 24-yarder nullified because he was called for illegal motion.