THE OLD quarterback knew long before the rest of us what this season could bring. Back on the first day of September, the New England Patriots released 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde. He'd spent 20 seasons in the NFL and had never seen anything like what had been assembled for 2007 in a sprawling complex alongside Route 1 in Foxborough, Mass.
In the long march to the season Testaverde, a New England backup in 2006, had seen the Patriots retool in pursuit of a fourth Super Bowl title in this decade. He'd seen the team overhaul its receiving corps, bringing in Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker; giving quarterback Tom Brady fresh and dangerous options. He knew the offensive line was experienced and stout. During unglamorous workouts in the spring and summer, Testaverde saw the seeds of uncommon greatness.
"I remember leaving there thinking, I'm looking forward to watching this team, because this is going to be something special," says Testaverde. "I don't think there's a team out there than can beat them straight up."
There were days and nights when the machinery was tested, but Testaverde would be right: The Patriots went 16--0, smashing records along the way. Yet all was a prelude to the postseason, which for New England began last Saturday night with a 31--20 divisional playoff victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. In many ways it was their most telling win, a performance that must have tantalized future opponents—like Sunday's AFC title game counterparts from San Diego—with its closeness, and discouraged them with its outcome.
January 21, 2008
Jacksonville executed a sensible game plan almost to perfection. But Brady was even nearer to perfect. The Jaguars sat in a soft Cover Two zone, often employing six defensive backs. They denied the deep ball to Moss, who was jammed all night by cornerback Brian Williams, with the support of at least one safety. It was sound thinking: The Pats are at their best when they score quickly and from great distances. The Jaguars would force them to earn every yard.
"The plan was to keep everything in front of us, make them drive down the field in a lot of plays and then stop them on third down and get off the field," said Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis. "But Brady was patient. They kept making third downs. We couldn't get off the field."
Brady was not just patient; he was surgical. He connected on 26 of 28 passes—an NFL record for single-game completion percentage (92.9)—three of which were touchdowns. One of the two misses was a flat-out drop by Welker. Twenty-two of Brady's completions were for 12 yards or less. "You play some games where you know you're not going to make 40- and 50-yard plays," said Pats tight end Kyle Brady. "This was one of those games."
It was a game in which Tom Brady threw over the heads of defensive backs exactly once all night, on a 53-yard, fourth-quarter completion to Stallworth that came off a scramble against a rare Jacksonville blitz. The rest of Brady's evening was spent standing upright in a cozy pocket, picking out short-range receivers. "Every drive was big, because there weren't many of them," said Patriots center Dan Koppen. "It seemed like every time we were on the sideline, we were saying, 'Big series, big series coming up."'
Welker caught nine balls for an average of just six yards a catch. Running back Kevin Faulk caught five passes for an average of 7.2 yards. Brady completed throws to eight different players. Second-year tailback Laurence Maroney, sent repeatedly into areas of the Jacksonville defense softened by the subtraction of linebackers in favor of defensive backs, rushed for 122 yards. Said Faulk, "We were doing whatever we could to make yardage."
It all begins and ends with Brady. From an outsider's perspective he has ascended to the highest level of celebrity: He and his supermodel girlfriend cannot walk the streets without video being splashed across the Internet. (See the recent clip in which a New Yorker stops the quarterback to introduce his dog, named Tom Brady.) It's the type of vaguely creepy treatment accorded Britney and Lindsay and, of late, Tony Romo.
Yet within the boundaries of Patriot Nation, Brady is something different altogether. His number 12 jersey is ubiquitous in the stands at Gillette (blue with white numbers for men, white with pink for women), suggesting an affection that goes beyond Q rating. Even on a team with 24 players who have at least one Super Bowl ring, and many who have three, he is a blue-collar motivational force in the locker room.
"I had no idea what his work ethic would be like," says Kyle Brady, who came in as a free agent last March. "It was a little surprising. He's in the classroom; he's studying tape. He's always around the complex."
Testaverde saw much the same thing. "I was always impressed with Tom from a distance," he says. "But I was much more impressed once I saw him every day. He can throw every pass there is, and he's got the head to go with his arm. He knows how to read defenses; he knows how to set up defenses for things that he wants to do.
"But more important than all that, he gets the most out of the players around him. The guy's will to win is as great as any player I've ever been around. He yells at guys—not like he's better than they are, but like he's one of them. And believe me, Tom will not let them lose a game."
The signature play on Saturday came on the first drive of the third quarter, with the game tied at 14. The Patriots took more than six minutes in moving to the Jacksonville six-yard line, where on first down they ran what looked like a direct shotgun snap to Faulk. The line blocked left, Faulk plowed in behind them, and Brady thrust his left arm into the air in an exaggerated diversionary fake. Except that Brady had the ball.
He would find Welker alone at the back end zone for a lead that the Patriots would not relinquish. But first Brady carried out the fake, turning his back to the defense with the ball hidden on his right thigh, briefly frozen and unattended in the midst of slick execution, a professional at the top of his game, two steps from perfection.