I heard a couple of scouts talking in the tunnel underneath Heinz Field on Sunday night, after the Patriots had hung their 41--27 defeat on the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
"Isn't it strange," one of them said, "how all through the playoffs what you heard was, 'We've got to stop Daunte Culpepper'--or Randy Moss or Donovan McNabb or Peyton Manning or Jerome Bettis. But not once did you hear anyone say, 'We've got to stop Tom Brady.' And all he's done is beat everyone every time he's had a chance."
"Weird, huh?" Brady said after New England won the right to meet the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. "I guess that means that I haven't yet reached the status of what you'd call a marquee player."
"It's a put-down, a put-down of Tom and our whole team," strong safety Rodney Harrison said. "People have been putting us down all season."
"Nah, it's not that," Brady said. "It's just that there are so many guys on this team capable of busting out and having a big game. It means that I'm surrounded by great athletes. The other team doesn't know who to stop first."
Philadelphia knows all about Brady. He picked the Eagles apart the only time he faced them, in Philadelphia on Sept. 14, 2003, when the Patriots handed the Eagles their worst loss of the season, 31--10. Brady completed 30 passes, mostly dinkers, against a banged-up secondary that was missing two starters. It was one of those games in which things just snowballed and kept getting worse for Philly--something like New England's Halloween loss to Pittsburgh this season. Donovan McNabb had his worst game of the year. He threw two picks, fumbled twice, got sacked seven times. The fans were yelling for A.J. Feeley. On ESPN's pregame show two weeks later Rush Limbaugh made his infamous remark about how the media were pumping up McNabb because he was an African-American.
"Oh, I remember the Patriots," Eagles tight end Chad Lewis said on Sunday. "It'll take a heck of an effort to beat them because they have the experience and they've proven they're one of the best of all time."
Best of all time? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Four Patriots were chosen for the Pro Bowl, but two--Larry Izzo and kicker Adam Vinatieri--are special-teamers. Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour were the only regulars picked to go to Honolulu. (Seymour is nursing a bad knee and was inactive for both playoff games.) Fifteen other teams have more offensive and defensive Pro Bowl representatives than New England, including Philadelphia with seven.
By now everyone knows the story of the Patriots, the triumph of the team concept over an individual's ego, the knack they have for signing people and plugging them right in, and the confidence to promote players from within and not miss a beat. It makes you wonder why other teams can't do the same thing.
"Because they don't have the touch--the ability to look at players and see right away what they can do--like our coaches and personnel staff have," said wideout David Givens. "Take a guy like Hank Poteat. There's a guy who hadn't played all year, but we signed him last week, and he was out there today playing in our dime defense, like he'd been doing it all season. It's weird. There are guys on the team who haven't even spoken to him. I'm one of them."
Poteat was cut by the Steelers, the Bucs and, in August, the Panthers. New England personnel director Scott Pioli worked him out twice this season and signed him on Jan. 10. Poteat was in all the dime packages against Pittsburgh and held up remarkably well while manning the right corner.
Last year injuries hit the Pats' offensive line hard, and the unit that started against Carolina in the Super Bowl included two veteran free agents and a rookie fifth-round draft choice. Brady wasn't sacked, and New England put up 481 yards of offense against reputedly the best defensive line in the league. This year the secondary is supposed to be the weak link, but the Colts' Peyton Manning couldn't go long against it in the divisional playoffs and Ben Roethlisberger couldn't put a dent in it on Sunday.
Now McNabb gets his shot. His weapons include a pair of starting wide receivers, Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston, who can be annoying but didn't have much impact against the Falcons on Sunday, plus a third wideout, Greg Lewis, who is dangerous downfield. The Eagles don't typically use a fourth one--they might if Terrell Owens returns from his ankle injury--but Philadelphia doesn't mind splitting tight end L.J. Smith, who has speed. The runners are McNabb and Brian Westbrook, a darter who's also valuable as a receiver.
Still, the Eagles can't show the Patriots anything New England hasn't already seen. The Pats' versatility on defense is stunning. Against Indianapolis they had to control the NFL's scariest team in space, and they did it in convincing fashion. Then on Sunday they faced an entirely different attack--football's most punishing ground game--and they displayed a short-yardage defense that combined muscle with quickness.
Offensively, coordinator Charlie Weis has plenty of options. He can pound with Corey Dillon, peck away with a talented array of wideouts (as he did against Philly in 2003) or go for the throat (as he did against Pittsburgh on Sunday). Two wideouts, bursting out of a double-tight-end, maximum-protection set, made quick work of the Steelers, with Givens occupying two defenders while Deion Branch ran a deep post for 60 yards and a touchdown. The Pats did the same thing in the second quarter, with Branch hauling in a 45-yarder from Brady.
Almost lost in the descriptives of Brady's competitiveness and big-game savvy is the fact that he is probably the NFL's most accurate and consistent deep passer. And Weis is not afraid to let him cut loose, at any time, from anywhere.
Philly is a proud team that has battled hard all year, but New England is just too street-smart, with too many ways to beat you. Patriots 31, Eagles 20
Almost lost in the descriptives of Brady is the fact that he is probably the NFL's MOST ACCURATE and consistent deep passer.