INDIANAPOLIS -- When Tom Brady spoke to Patriots owner Robert Kraft after winning the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago and said he "sucked" in the game, the statistics supported him. Brady threw for no touchdowns and was picked off twice. It was the first time in 21 career playoff games that he finished worse than minus-1 in touchdown-to-interception differential.
In that same conversation with Kraft, Brady also promised he would play better in Super Bowl XLVI. The statistics don't support him as strongly in that statement.
Brady has been minus-2 or worse in TD-to-INT differential seven times before the win over the Ravens in the AFC title game, but in only three of the games that immediately followed those outings did he finish with a plus-differential. On three other occasions he was even, and in one outing he had a minus-differential. Overall, the Patriots are just 4-3 in games following a minus-2-or-worse performance by Brady.
When asked about Brady's assessment of his performance against the Ravens, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "At the end of every game, we can always all look back and say, 'I wish I could have done this better. I wish I could have done that better.' That's just competition."
Brady often projects an image of calm and cool, whether facing a rush of defensive linemen or the crush of paparazzi. But former teammates speak of a different Brady, one whose competitive engine has no kill switch. To see this, you must journey behind the Iron Curtain that is a Patriots practice.
Cornerback Asante Samuel played five seasons in New England before joining the Eagles in 2008. He can recall that each Thursday during the 2007 season -- the year Patriots went 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl -- New England would simulate two-minute drills by having its No. 1 offense face the No. 1 defense. In most of those instances, the only thing cool about Brady after those matchups was the water bottle he might toss.
"We would just go out and take advantage of Tom," Samuel told SI then. "I think he probably beat us once or twice the whole year. When we go against each other, it's fun and games and we talk smack. But it's also very competitive, and he gets real upset when he doesn't win. He's throwing helmets, turning red, cursing, everything."
"For real," says safety Rodney Harrison, who teamed with Brady for six seasons before retiring in 2009. "As good as Tom Brady is in that offense, we shut them down. It's like we're going against the worst offense in the league. We're picking the ball off, and Tom would get frustrated. He's cussing, he's throwing his helmet. Seriously."
For most of his career, including the playoffs, Brady has been known for throwing touchdowns -- 336 to 134 interceptions, to be precise. He tossed 50 in 2007 to break the single-season record Peyton Manning established in 2004.
Along the way, people repeatedly have wondered about the secret to his success. Harrison hung out in Brady's hotel room several nights before Super Bowl XLII and asked the Michigan alum how he has been able to stay so focused through what was three championships and an 18-0 start that year.
"He said it's easy," Harrison recalled. "He told me it doesn't matter what you've done in the past, it's all about the here and now and what you're going to do in the future. That's the kind of the approach that Tom has. He's always looked at himself as that sixth-round draft choice out of Michigan, as a guy that nobody thought could get it done. I think when you get to a point where you're complacent and content, that's when you lose the edge. Tom Brady is always working on getting the edge."
Sometimes it comes from remembering that 198 players were selected before him in the 2000 draft. Other times it's from an opponent making an innocuous (to most people) comment that he expects to beat the Patriots. And sometimes it stems from poor outings in a two-minute drill in practice. Whatever the case, it has worked for Brady and the Patriots.
"He's a guy that's got total control of the offense," said Hall of Famer John Elway. "They've done a great job of taking advantage of his strengths. He's not a guy that's going to run around and make a lot of plays with his feet; he's going to make them with his mind and his arm. Accuracy-wise, they don't talk about how accurate he is. But he's tremendously accurate. He has the cerebral capabilities of always knowing where he's going to go with the ball early and getting it to them."
Before retiring, Brett Favre marveled at the consistency with which Brady plays. Favre told SI in 2008, "The way he plays, mechanically speaking, and how sound he is in his decision-making, it seems like he never puts himself or his team in a bad position. Whenever you see a bad throw, you're like, whoa. I mean, guys have bad throws all the time, bad decisions. But it just seems like right now he reminds me a lot of [49ers great] Joe Montana."
The constant comparisons and references to Montana are understandable considering the two have similar builds (long and lithe, although Brady is slightly taller and heavier), similar feels for the game, and above-average but not jaw-dropping arm strength. Brady grew up in Northern California attending 49ers games with his parents and was at Candlestick Park when Montana threw the touchdown pass to Dwight Clark to beat Dallas and earn a trip to Super Bowl XVI.
Randy Cross was a starting guard for the 49ers in that game. Like others, he draws parallels between Brady and Montana.
"When you first saw Tom Brady in 2001 (his first year as a starter and second year in the league), he looked like a young quarterback who had grown up in the Bay Area, probably spent his late afternoons on Saturdays playing Joe Montana with his buddies out in the front yard or at the park," he said. "He moved like Joe. Physically, he emulated a lot of the physical attributes of Joe. Little did we know that he would manage to bring along most every other trait that Joe had."
Cross was referring to the ability to be cool under fire and one mental step ahead of the defense.
"How often did you hear people say they wanted to blitz Joe, that they wanted to pressure Joe?" Cross asked. "Not often, because what you're saying is that you wanted to make him do what he does better than anybody else, which is react under pressure. Tom's the same way. If Joe and Tom were playing on a field at the same time, you'd swear you were watching a big brother and his little brother out there."
Another potential link between the two could be championships. A win Sunday would give Brady four Super Bowl titles, tying him for first all-time with Montana and ex-Steelers great Terry Bradshaw. Being in that company definitely wouldn't suck.