(Jan. 21, 2004) -- Star power evades the New England Patriots, just as it does the Carolina Panthers.
We see the opponents of Super Bowl XXXVIII as great teams that don't necessarily boast great talent.
Some people still can't say the last name of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme without the help of a pronunciation guide. But the greater insult is the way Tom Brady, his Patriots counterpart, is routinely overlooked in discussions about the best quarterback in the NFL today.
It should stop. Immediately.
With Brady starting his second Super Bowl in three seasons -- and perhaps on his way to receiving his second Super Bowl MVP award in the same stretch -- how could he not merit strong consideration as the current top player at his position? I'll even go as far as to say that he is in place to be regarded among the better quarterbacks to ever play the game. This is when the all-time greats separate themselves from the rest, and two Super Bowl rings in three seasons would definitely create some separation. Two Super Bowl MVPs in that span would create a lot more.
For most of the season, Peyton Manning and Steve McNair set the league's quarterbacking standard on the way to becoming the NFL's co-MVPs. For the first two weeks of the playoffs, Manning climbed to a level all his own. He piled up gaudy numbers in leading the Indianapolis Colts to victories over Denver and Kansas City. He achieved near perfection in all aspects of his performance.
But while it all unraveled for Manning in the AFC Championship Game, Brady did what he does better than the majority of players at his position. He did what he always seems to do. He found a way to win.
As a clearly flustered Manning threw his first four interceptions of the playoffs and hit the dirt on four of his five postseason sacks, Brady was showing the poise, leadership, and efficiency that -- along with staggering statistics -- helped Manning draw heaping media praise for being at the very top of his game. Brady methodically picked apart the Colts' secondary with customary short and intermediate throws, looking no less comfortable than he did while lobbing the ball in pre-game warm-ups. In a classic, championship-game duel, Manning was the one who blinked.
I fully acknowledge that there is no comparing the defenses that each faced. The Patriots' defense did so much more to disrupt Manning and the rest of the Colts' offense than Indianapolis' defense did to befuddle Brady and his offensive teammates. New England's "Homeland Defense" receives, and deserves, the lion's share of credit for the team's success. Bill Belichick receives, and deserves, greater recognition than anyone else connected with the Patriots for his brilliant defensive scheming and ability to guide the team to 14 consecutive wins despite a rash of injuries and other forms of adversity.
However, that does not mean Brady should in any way be slighted for his contributions. To appreciate the quality of his work, you have to go beyond his completions, attempts and yards. You have to look at the dynamic way he has conducted himself almost from the first moment he took over for injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Maybe he doesn't have the most gifted arm or the fleetest of feet, but, with only a modest supporting cast, he consistently makes plays. Sometimes it's a perfect strike down the middle. Sometimes it's a clutch scramble for a first down. Sometimes it's a devastating block, such as the one he laid on Tennessee safety Lance Schulters to help spring Bethel Johnson for a 14-yard gain in the divisional round.
You look at Brady and you catch glimpses of the form and style of his boyhood hero, Joe Montana. No one raved very much about his physical skills, either. When his career ended, he had a bunch of Super Bowl rings and was considered perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
In going 22 of 37 for 237 yards in AFC title game, Brady led the Patriots to scores on five of their first six possessions. He didn't get them into the end zone as often as he, the rest of the Pats or their followers would have preferred. Yet he did do a wonderful job of keeping Manning off the field. After three quarters, New England had a 10-minute advantage in time of possession. Brady opened the game by guiding the Patriots on a 13-play, 65-yard march that consumed six minutes and 44 seconds. That and Manning's end-zone interception to kill the Colts' first drive established exactly the kind of day it was going to be for both teams and, especially, for both quarterbacks.
In typical fashion, Brady did nothing spectacular. He just continually hit high-percentage throws all over the field, connecting with eight different receivers. He showed his usual marvelous touch. He displayed his uncanny ability to "feel" pressure in the pocket, avoid it and deliver the pass.
Instead of getting greedy by firing risky throws downfield, he concentrated on burning the clock. None of his first nine completions covered more than 14 yards and he converted two fourth downs. Despite the fact he dropped back 37 times and that someone named Russ Hochstein was making only his second career start in place of injured left guard Damien Woody, Brady was never sacked. He was intercepted once, the first time that has happened all season at Gillette Stadium.
"What you hear about him is all true," Colts linebacker Rob Morris said of Brady. "He's not flashy. He just goes out there, throws to the right guys, doesn't make mistakes."
Brady might not be able to match passing numbers with Manning or McNair. But his career starting record of 39-12 in four seasons is enough to put him in a class by himself. So is his 5-0 record in the postseason.
"Tom Brady is the greatest winner in football right now," Pats cornerback Ty Law said after intercepting Manning three times. "I don't care what anybody says. Maybe his numbers are not eye-popping (and he doesn't have) all these yards, all these touchdowns. But he knows how to win ballgames. What are stats when you are sitting at home?
"Tom Brady ... I will play with him any day of the week. With all due respect to Steve McNair, Peyton Manning and so many of the other great quarterbacks in the game today, I want to go out there with Tom Brady because winning is the trump card of everything."
And no quarterback plays that card better than Brady.