FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was so worried about the well-being of teammate and quarterback Tom Brady that he approached Deion Branch and Wes Welker and asked them if something was wrong.
"I was like, 'Is Tom OK?' You know, he's intense, but this was like a whole new thing, man. They were like, 'It's that time of the year, you just have to understand,' " Ochocinco said. "I've been around a lot of really competitive people and I've had Carson Palmer and Jon Kitna as my quarterbacks. You know that quarterbacks are a little different. They have to act a little different because of the position. But Tom has taken that to a whole different level."
Tales of Brady's intensity – complete with a full array of f-bomb variations – are the stuff of lore around the Patriots. This week, however, a number of factors have converged to amp Brady beyond his normal level. With a Saturday night showdown looming against the Denver Broncos in the second round of the NFL playoffs, the 34-year-old Brady and the Patriots are at something of a crossroads. This goes beyond the creeping of time and age for Brady. It includes the incessant questioning of legendary coach Bill Belichick about a Patriots defense that is more of a sore subject than strategic answer. That defense has put pressure on Brady and New England's offense to be at their collective best at a time when offensive shortcomings glare the most.
Since the middle of the 2007 playoffs, when he was coming off his first MVP season, Brady has seen one playoff game after another slip through his fingers. From the Super Bowl that season, when the New York Giants crashed New England's attempt at perfection, to a sputtering effort against the archrival New York Jets a year ago, Brady's playoff résumé is in decline. He won his first 10 playoff games but is 4-4 in his last eight.
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Put all of that together and perhaps you understand what makes Brady so edgy these days. On Tuesday, his weekly news conference was a study in terse focus. Brady had little time or energy for the questions or thoughts about anything but the challenge that Denver presents. Here's a notable exchange:
Reporter: "I know you take losses very hard. How long did it take you to get over that Jets loss last year in the playoffs?
Brady: "I don't know. I don't remember."
Reporter: "Has that been on your mind this season?"
Brady: "No. I haven't thought about anything about last year or last week. I'm trying to think about today and talking to you guys and get done with this and then go back to work."
At a time when most Patriots fans are thinking that Denver will be a rollover win on the way to a home game in the AFC championship game, Brady is viewing it as a defining moment. For a guy who's a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, that seems absurd. But that's the nature of Brady.
"Tom is competitive in everything, every day," said Patriots running back Kevin Faulk, who was drafted in the second round in 1999, a year before Brady joined the team. "It's games, it's practices, it's him talking to the defensive players in practice and them talking back at him to get revved up."
How about examples?
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"No buddy, you ain't getting that from me," Faulk said, his smiling face serving as the perfect tease to a story or two he might tell years from now.
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"He doesn't typically take losing too well," said Patriots offensive tackle Matt Light, who has played with Brady for Light's entire 11-year career. "I've noticed that over the years."
Light bit his tongue so hard on that statement that he may not be able to eat for a week. The stories about Brady upbraiding teammates and coaches (and vice versa) are the stuff of legend. The national audience got a look at that Dec. 11, when offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien screamed at Brady after an interception. O'Brien was upset because Brady was getting on wide receiver Tiquan Underwood. It's the everyday push around the Patriots.
"That was nothing," Ochocinco said. "That stuff happens every day. Every … single … day. That's what it's like around here. Everybody is pushing for perfection and they're pushing hard. I've never seen anything like it in my whole career. You understand why this team is where it is. … Tom is on you about the littlest things, that you were a step off where you should be or the angle is wrong or whatever it is. Really, he has me walking on eggshells and I haven't done that since I was a rookie."
Ochocinco, who has had a rough transition to New England with only 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown, wasn't complaining. In his own way, Ochocinco loves the demands, even if he has yet to meet them. Other players have likewise come to appreciate Brady's standards.
"[It's] not unlike a lot of other guys that are very, I'll say passionate about what they do," Light said. "I played with [Drew] Brees in college. He's kind of the same way. I think most quarterbacks are gambling men – they like to take chances, like to go out there, they like to get the wins and all that good stuff. When they don't, they're upset like everybody else on this team. Nobody handles a loss very well. We each have our own way of doing it. I think you guys can all see how into it Tom is each week and what these games mean. He puts a lot into it, we all do."
This postseason, even against the lightly regarded Broncos and Tim Tebow, may require everything Brady has. Although New England beat Denver handily Dec. 18, the game didn't always go well for the Patriots. They were outgained 167-4 in the first quarter and trailed 16-7 at one point. If not for two fumbles and a muffed punt by Denver in the second quarter, the game might have played out much differently.
The Patriots have been leaning on Brady all season. That has been particularly true over the final four games, when New England allowed 74 points in the first halfs, only to see Brady rescue them each time. And that was against teams that weren't very good. Aside from Denver, the Patriots had to get past the likes of Miami, Buffalo and Washington. The Patriots won't face substandard teams on the rest of the road to the Super Bowl.
They know that.
"Everybody around here knows the standard that's expected: It's up here," Ochocinco said, putting his hand well above his head. "It's all about getting to that point, whatever it takes."
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