FOXBORO – How it looks matters to Tom Brady.
More than the final result? No. He’ll happily take a win on a sloppy day over a loss when the offense plays seamlessly.
But he just doesn’t revel anymore.
Because at 34 with three Super Bowl rings and a place in Canton already secured, he's playing to a certain standard every time he goes on the field. And it’s a standard that only a few NFL players have ever attained. Near perfection.
Directing a two-minute drive to bring the Patriots back to a win on a day when Brady was harassed and the offense wasn’t the awe-inspiring “machine” that Chad Ochocinco was agog over a few weeks ago doesn’t cause Brady to backflip.
Because he worries whether miscommunications in Week 6 or missed throws in Week 5 or blitz schemes in Week 3 will, in Weeks 18, 19 or 20, be the Patriots’ undoing.
Two of the three most recent Patriots losses came to Ryan-directed defenses. Rex’s Jets in last year’s playoffs. Rob’s Browns last November.
And in the past two weeks, the Patriots avenged the Ryans to a degree. But you could see after both of these games that Brady hated – hated – being less than effective.
“You appreciate the wins because you could just as easily lose these games,” Brady said Sunday when I asked him about his seeming frustration. “You can’t beat yourself up over the wins and then beat yourself up over the losses even though that’s what we tend to do around here. I’m glad we’re going to come in this week and you’d rather learn from your mistakes and win than learn from your mistakes and lose.
“When you play good football teams, they’re going to make their share of plays and we’re going to make our share of plays. Are there things that we could have done better? Certainly. And we could have done things better in each of these games this year. It’s not even November yet. We’re still building on what we set out to. We’re nowhere near where we need to be and nowhere near where we’re going to be in a couple of months.”
Rob Ryan did indeed throw the kitchen sink at the Patriots as he promised during the week. Their speed, their complexity and their athleticism was close to being New England’s undoing. Wes Welker was effectively taken out of the game by Orlando Scandrick (6 catches for 45 yards). Brady was sacked three times, picked off twice (once on a batted ball, once on an ill-advised pass on which his arm was hit while he was trying to throw into a scrum) and forced to move more than at any time all season.
That he was able to maintain poise and then embark on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that took 2:09 to complete – a drive where he went 8-for-9 and picked up a third-down conversion on a quarterback sneak – was evidence that he can still rescue babies from burning buildings.
Most impressive about it, though, was the fact that it’s been a little while since Brady didn’t start out looking good and then fixed it at game’s end. He was more poised in the face of pressure on Sunday then he’s been on days when he’s been harangued (picks notwithstanding).
Everyone knows he can put up the video game numbers as well as anyone who’s ever played the sport. But we needed a refresher on just how precise he can be in the face of mayhem. And he did that Sunday.
“They make you earn every yard,” Brady said of the Cowboys’ defense. “It’s not like there are a bunch of gimme throws out there or gimme routes or gimme calls from the sideline. There are a lot of different things and they have a lot of good players that can execute it. Some good linebackers, a [defensive] line that really rushes no matter how many guys – three guys, five guys and some guys even cover. It’s a good defense and they really made us earn it today.”
The Patriots played a truly complementary game on Sunday. When the offense gave the ball over three times and the special teams once, the Cowboys managed just two field goals off those turnovers.
And when the Patriots needed the ball back late and the Cowboys were trying to kill clock and make the Patriots burn timeouts, the defense welcomed Tony Romo and Jason Garrett’s invitation to stop them and turn the ball back over to Brady.
“Brady was doing what he does,” said Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh. “He is known for that but we have to find a way to hunker down when we are in those situations. I feel like we should have won that game but Tom Brady made some great throws. We have to find a way to come out with that win.”
“Your margin of error is very, very small at that point,” Brady said when asked about playing from behind knowing you're on your final possession. “You can’t not get the ball in the end zone. The plays and throws need to be more accurate. The routes need to be better. The protection needs to be better and the entire offense [needs to be better]. It’s something we work on quite a bit and we haven’t had really a true two-minute situation at the end of the game where we needed a touchdown in a long time. We practice it quite a bit. We prepare hard for that situation every week. When it came up this week, it’s good to get the ball in the end zone.”
All the things that led up to that drive, though, are what will stick in Brady’s mind just as much as the game-winning drive.
Every week, we hear about this player “coming of age,” that team “growing up right before our eyes” and corners being turned. But it’s always temporary.
There is no wand waving. Nobody ever “arrives.” Tom Brady knows that better than any player in the NFL because, while this may be the greatest come-from-behind win that some of his teammates have ever experienced in the NFL, there’s better feelings than this. And a lot of work to be done if the Patriots are going to feel it again.