HOUSTON -- Tom Brady, at age 39, is easily the oldest player who'll suit up for Super Bowl LI this Sunday in Houston, and much has been made of how well the Patriots QB is playing at his relatively advanced football age.
Right on his heels, however, is a player who's been a thorn in his side for nearly two decades. This Sunday, they'll renew acquaintances on the field in Houston.
Monday night at Super Bowl Opening Night (formerly Media Day), Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney recalled the day he and Brady first met.
"I've been chasing Tom since 1998 when I played at Syracuse and he was at Michigan. My first actual play, first hit on any quarterback in my whole collegiate career was against Brady, when he subbed in at some point in that game. I've chased him a long time, he's been beating me for a long time."
Freeney, of course, is no stranger to big games against Brady and the Patriots. As a long-time Indianapolis Colt, Freeney, though undersized for his position at 6-1, 270, quickly established himself as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL early in his career. Yet, of Freeney's 122 career sacks, only four have come against TB12, and that figure includes a number of postseason battles the two waged when he was a Colt.
"I have so much respect for him," Freeney continued about Brady. "He's done a tremendous job in his career. He's been the best at what he's done.
"I love when quarterbacks hold onto the ball, because I can actually get to them. Brady is kind of frustrating in the sense that he gets rid of the ball so quick, and when he does, you're not ready for it."
Much of Brady's success – and by extension, New England's overall – according to Freeney, is the approach the Patriots have taken under head coach Bill Belichick to cater each game plan toward the opponent they're facing any particular week.
"You can watch all the film you want on the Patriots, and they do a lot of the same things, but they don't," he explained. "You can prepare for that all you want, it doesn't mean they're going to do that. You look at them this year, they had so many different game plans, you have no idea what they're going to come with [against Atlanta]. That's their coaching and how they prepare. They prepare better than any team, I feel, from that standpoint, than any other team in the league.
"Brady is obviously an amazing player, but he's going to do what the system demands him to do. That's what makes him good. He doesn't do much making stuff up. He's cool, calm, and collected in the pocket, and he can manage that offense the way no other [player] has and make the least amount of mistakes. That's why the Patriots are so good – they make the least amount of mistakes."
Another factor Freeney cited in New England's favor has been the resurgent Patriots offensive line under position coach Dante Scarnecchia. Freeney has seen numerous iterations of the Patriots' o-line over the years, but the common thread has been Scarnecchia, who came out of a two-year retirement this season to fix an ailing unit.
"He knows the system, he knows what he has and he puts those guys in the best positions to succeed," Freeney remarked about him. "They may not have all the Pro Bowlers over there, but they always have one of the best lines in the league. It's because they work together. [Scarnecchia] gets those guys together doing the right things. So, when you turn on the film, you don't see a lot of mistakes on the offensive line, and that's due to coaching."
Freeney is a native New Englander who grew up and played high school football in Hartford, Conn. His younger days playing in the wintry elements helped shape him, he acknowledged in Houston, into the relentless player he grew to become in the NFL.
He already owns a Super Bowl ring from his time with Indianapolis, but it seems appropriate that he now approaches the end of his illustrious career with yet another big game opportunity against his long-time nemesis, Brady and the Patriots, this time in the biggest of gridiron stages.
"It feels different because I'm older, I guess," he chuckled. "I can appreciate the moment a lot more. I'm in a different place in my career than I was before, and that's okay. You play long enough, you're going to have all the [ups and downs]. I'm a mentor guy now, but I'm also out there having fun.
"It's going to be a big moment, a big game [on Super Bowl Sunday], but the team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win the game. With the Patriots, they pride themselves, day in and day out, game in and game out, on being a team that makes the least amount of mistakes.
"It's been a great competition, rivalry, whatever you want to say [with Brady], over all our years, and this is going to be another one," Freeney grinned broadly. "It's going to be great."