FOXBORO, Mass. -- Tom Brady is not defending a championship this postseason. He has not defended a championship for a long time. But he is protecting something else: His legacy, his franchise's greatness, and maybe even a classic quarterback style of play.
The next generation of quarterbacks surrounds Brady, ready to make this Super Bowl their own. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick is 25 and part man, part Learjet. Atlanta's Matt Ryan is 27 and just had an MVP-quality year. Joe Flacco turns 28 this week, is entering his third AFC championship game, and just outplayed Peyton Manning on the road.
They are all looking for their place in football history. Brady already has his.
But he wants more.
This is the essence of Brady, the simple guiding principle that has followed him from high school to college stardom to NFL superstardom to fame and fortune and into this week's AFC title game: He always wants more. And as he has learned with every painful postseason defeat: every year, more is harder to get.
Eight years have passed since his last Super Bowl win. He has played on one true juggernaut since then: Those undefeated 2007 Patriots, who lost to the Giants of Eli Manning (and David Tyree) in the Super Bowl. Every other season, Brady has tried to drive a very good team to greatness.
He will have to do it again. The Patriots crushed the Texans at home Sunday, but they suffered in defeat. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski, far and away his most versatile weapon, is out for the rest of the season with a broken arm. Running back Danny Woodhead and defensive end Chandler Jones were also hurt.
The Patriots won anyway, because they are Brady's Patriots. For bookkeeping purposes, they needed somebody to officially score the touchdowns, so they found a nice young man and decided to call him Shane Vereen. He scored three times, once on a 33-yard pass from Brady that was just perfect.
Brady doesn't sprint like Kaepernick or stand as tall in the pocket as Flacco, but he has probably gifted more touchdown passes to no-name receivers than anybody in NFL history.
Brady was asked about Vereen afterward, and he said this:
"Yeah, you know, there were a bunch of guys that made good plays. Shane had a great game."
So: Yeah, you know, nothing.
This is how the Patriots operate. If you ask for a word with them, they take you literally, and it had better be a short word. Almost everybody on the roster learns to say nothing. People usually attribute this to Belichick, who doesn't want to give the media a story and only speaks in shades of fog. But it also comes from Brady, who doesn't want to run so far ahead of his teammates that he can't lead them.
Brady is 35 now, older than Troy Aikman was when he played his last game. He broke his hero Joe Montana's record for playoff wins Sunday -- Brady now has 17. But the record he really wants is for Super Bowl wins by a quarterback. Montana won four. Brady won his third Super Bowl eight years ago.
Brady used to be like Patriots tackle Nate Solder, who is heading to his second straight AFC title game, and said Sunday, "As a guy two years in the league, I guess I just assume it happens every year. But I know that's not the case."
A few years ago, there were worries that Brady was changing. He'd gone Hollywood. He had a child with an actress and married a model. He started spending his offseasons in California instead of setting attendance records at voluntary team workouts in Massachusetts.
And in the end ... well, nothing changed. Brady is as good as he has ever been. The Patriots are more clearly his team than they've ever been. His true commitment didn't waver for a day. And that fourth Super Bowl title is still out there, waiting to be grabbed.
The pursuit of the last title has come to define Brady's career almost as much as the early championships. And so it is fitting that he is fighting off these three young guys to win it. Kaepernick looks like a 10-year star. Flacco gets a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, but this could be a transformative postseason for him, like Eli Manning's 2007 postseason with the Giants. Ryan has mostly lived up to the predictions of greatness, or at least very-goodness.
Pro football is evolving. Some days, Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and other mobile quarterbacks seem like they are changing what it means to be a quarterback. But there is Brady, an old-school package of toughness, accuracy and smarts, carrying an offense as well as anybody in the league.
And in this way, too, nothing has changed for Brady. He has been dueling better athletes for his entire career. At Michigan, he held off wunderkind Drew Henson. When he got to the Patriots, he set his sights on his teammate and friend Drew Bledsoe, a former No. 1 pick.
The three young guys all look like they're ready to win a Super Bowl. But don't be surprised if Tom Brady gets the thing he always wants: more.