(Foxboro, MA, 01/21/18) New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady checks out his injured hand before the AFC Championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, January 21, 2018. Staff photo by Matt Stone[ad name=”HTML-68″]
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Tom Brady proved he was the G.O.A.T. … yet again.
That’s Greatest Of All Time. As in quarterbacks. As in him.
I mean …
“We’re not talking about open-heart surgery,”New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Sunday evening.
Belichick was talking about Brady’s throwing hand, injured in practice last week. But Brady was pretty surgical as he carved apart the Jacksonville Jaguars on the way to his eighth Super Bowl. In a fourth quarter the Jaguars will never forget, he took away their heart and then he pulled the Super Bowl dream to which they so precariously clung those final few minutes, until it was gone for good.
Across America there was a familiar groan as it became clear the Patriots were on their way to another Super Bowl, off to face the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis. Not the Patriots. Not again! After having been to just two Super Bowls before 2002, the Pats are heading to their eight in 17 seasons. The plot rarely changes. Belichick’s secretive empire – one that has twice been caught cheating – and its dashing quarterback will dominate the lead-up to the America’s biggest game once again.
And yet for the first time since maybe the first championship run back in the winter of 2002, may actually attract some sympathy. The last months have not been easy for them. They headed into the postseason under a haze of rumors that cracks were appearing in the relationship between Belichick, Brady and owner Robert Kraft. Some of those suspicions were laid out in a lengthy ESPN story that focused – in part – on the looming passage of power from the 40-year-old Brady to the next quarterback. The story hinted at a possible breakup of the three. Then, last Wednesday, Brady somehow banged his throwing hand into running back Rex Burkhead at practice and the always-silent Patriots became extraordinarily evasive about Brady’s health.
For the first time in many years, the stoic and despised Pats looked … vulnerable.
This suspicion was confirmed when Brady looked unsure as he made some of his throws and his star tight end Rob Gronkowski was knocked from the game with a concussion and Jacksonville led 20-10 with under nine minutes left in the game. And then Brady became Brady and the Patriots became the Patriots and New England thundered back as they do so often. The precision with which Brady took apart the Jaguars defense was almost beautiful to watch as long as you didn’t realize he was slicing apart the Jags’ hearts as he broke those of the majority of the American public.
After going through an absurd monosyllabic press conference on Friday in which his injured hand – encased in a protective glove – was the topic of conversation, Brady seemed almost human on Sunday. He choked up as he talked about the coming Super Bowl being played in his mother’s home state (she has been battling cancer). When asked about his hand he said he has had worse pain from football injuries but admitted that he was concerned about the severity on Wednesday when it happened.
“I thought, ‘of all the plays my season can’t end on a handoff in practice,’” Brady said after the game in a rare admission of doubt.
The stitches were supposed to make it hard for him to throw. They were supposed to break him apart. But the Patriots machine does not break. They march through the second half of seasons and the playoffs with all the joy of a fleet of robots.
I remember the last time Brady and the Pats played Philadelphia in a Super Bowl. This was back in 2005 and to give context to Brady’s career, Donovan McNabb was the Eagles’ starting quarterback. Philadelphia has had five regular starters since then, including the current fill-in Nick Foles, who is back in Philadelphia for the second time.
After the game – won by who else? – I followed Brady as he went from the Pats locker room to an interview tent set up behind the stadium. He was 27 at the time and he and his team-mates were like teenagers as he turned to his friends and put a finger to his lip and said: “shhhhh” and the other young men put their fingers to their lips and said: “shhhhhh” too.
Who would have known then there would be so many more Super Bowls and he would be playing into his 40s and the Patriots would have remained intact, still hated by an America who had long tired of seeing them in their Super Bowls?
Brady looked so young that night, invulnerable. On Sunday he tried to hide his hand until the last possible moment. He barked at photographers who got too close to him before the game and he shook it several times after the Jags pass rushers knocked him to the ground. He looked every bit of 40 even if his passes didn’t show it.
For a few moments it almost made Brady and his team, well, likable.