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Tom Brady stood under the falling confetti and soaring cheers after the New England Patriots' AFC championship victory over the Baltimore Ravens and delivered to a national television audience a stark assessment of his play.
"Pretty bad," he said.
He was. At least by Tom Brady standards – 22-of-36 for 239 yards with zero touchdowns, two interceptions and a number of ill-advised or overthrown passes. In fairness, he did score the winning touchdown on a one-yard dive.
New England will play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI next Sunday because of its superior defensive effort and a potential game-tying field goal missed by the Ravens. It wasn't because of the right arm of its future Hall of Fame quarterback.
It's a team game, so these things happen. Except with Brady they seem to keep happening, at least in white-knuckle playoff contests. The man who has built his brilliant career on a propensity for clutch play in the most significant of moments has a recent history of being mediocre when the season is on the line.
New England's Joe Cool has gone cold.
Starting with Super Bowl XLII, where the Giants sprung a historic upset over the previously unbeaten Pats, Brady has struggled in four of New England's five elimination games.
In that Super Bowl against the Giants four years ago, he went 29-of-48 for 266 yards and one TD.
In the '09 AFC wild-card game against the Ravens, he went 23-of-42 for 154 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
In the '11 divisional round against the New York Jets, he went 29 of 45 for 299 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
And then there was this AFC title game against Baltimore, the only one of the four New England survived.
In those four games he's averaged a 60.2 completion percentage and 239.5 yards, not horrible numbers but well below his averages during those same four regular seasons: 66.5 completion percentage and 286.6 yards a game.
Then there are the ugly five touchdowns against six interceptions – disastrous compared to his 4.1-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (153-37) during those four years.
His four-playoff game passer rating is a weak 69.5, a precipitous drop from the 107.5 he posted during those same regular seasons.
All of this, of course, is particularly jarring because of the standard set by Brady, who if he wins a fourth Super Bowl, will strengthen his case in the debate over who is the greatest quarterback of all time.
He's thrown 300 regular-season touchdowns against just 115 picks. His all-time record as a starter, playoffs included, is 140-40, a plus-100 that is far and away the best in NFL history (Joe Montana at plus-73 appears to be second). Early in his career Brady routinely won tight playoff games, often with dramatic game-winning drives.
It's worth noting that his one strong playoff performance since that '07 Super Bowl was a blistering 26-of-34 for 363 yards and six-touchdown effort in a destruction of the Denver Broncos earlier this month.
So it's not like he forgot how to be a great playoff quarterback. And no one doubts he is capable of another Super Bowl MVP effort in Indianapolis.
It's also, as time passes, easy to forget that this happens to the best of them. Montana lost three consecutive playoff games with the San Francisco 49ers from 1985-87 in which he threw zero touchdown passes and a combined four picks. Then he won the next two Super Bowls.
Still, what to make of Brady's mini recent track record?
"You try to be at your very best in the biggest game," Brady said this week. "My teammates really count on that. Certainly, I count on that. There's a lot of preparation that goes into that.
"Playing with confidence and anticipation and understanding the game plan and going out and executing it when it matters the most. That's what it's going to take."
There's no simple answer here. There isn't even a simple question.
These are four games spread out over a five-year period, a preposterous sample. New England featured completely different personnel and offensive schemes in each game while facing different opponents. Some games were in warm weather, some cold. About the only constant is that Brady faced elite defenses on each occasion. But that's how the playoffs work.
So the questions linger. Is he pressing too much? Is his desire for a fourth Super Bowl win so intense that he's over-preparing or overthrowing? Is he trying too hard, such as his ill-advised and unnecessary deep pass against the Ravens that turned into a pick? Or are playoff defenses so focused on stopping him there's a weak point somewhere else that can be exploited?
If anyone knew, they'd fix it before taking the field against the Giants. Maybe they will.
"It's a great team that we're playing," Brady said. "Everyone is going to need to be at their best."
In New England it's always started with Tom Brady. There's never been a doubt that he's the team's most valuable player, its heart and soul, its unqualified leader. The supporting cast comes and goes. Brady stays.
So while, yes, everyone does need to be at their best, the Patriots stand little chance if Tom Brady plays like he said he played against the Ravens.
"I'll do better in two weeks," Brady told owner Robert Kraft after the game. "You can count on that."
He'd better. It's the key to everything.
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