As Tom Brady prepares to play in his seventh Super Bowl — 15 seasons after playing in his first — attempting to wrap our arms around his legendary career seems futile. Brady was drafted by New England when Bill Clinton was still president. He won his first title eight days after A Walk to Remember hit theaters. As Brady hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the first time, now-30-year-old sportswriters were getting ready to watch Mandy Moore movies on first dates — and Falcons rookie linebacker Deion Jones was just returning to his first-grade class from Christmas break.
With Sunday’s showdown against Atlanta approaching, it’s worth considering what’s made Brady so transcendent over the years, and why he’s been able to sustain this level of success even as he nears his 40th birthday. To that end, I set out to identify the 10 throws that define Brady as a quarterback — from his time as a fresh-faced 24-year-old until now.
Sorting through the throws from Brady’s time with the Patriots isn’t so much wading into a pool as it is shuffling into the Atlantic Ocean. Including the playoffs, Brady has completed 6,032 passes in his decorated 17-year tenure with the Patriots (a staggering 13.1 percent of those have come in the postseason; Brady has played a lot of January football). That’s one hell of a pile to dig through, but even in that daunting heap, there’s a collection of tosses that stand out.
Keep in mind, the below list isn’t the 10 best throws Brady has ever made. (With endless reels of tape to sort through, settling on that would be next to impossible.) They’re the throws that, in some way, represent a larger theme or tendency that helps explain how Brady and the Patriots have been able to stay this good for this long. Let’s dive in.
1. Brady’s 65-Yard Touchdown Pass to Randy Moss Against the Giants
Date: December 29, 2007
This throw feels like the only place to start if we’re piecing together the essentials of Tom Brady. In talking with people who’ve played for and been around the Patriots over the past decade and a half, this throw comes up more than any other. ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss, who’s covered the team in some capacity since 1997, calls it his "favorite sequence of plays." As Brady transitioned from the maestro of undermanned offenses to the man who engineered the scariest unit of all time, this play served as the exclamation point to what was then the best season a quarterback had ever had.
Donte’ Stallworth, who caught 46 passes for 697 yards for the historic 2007 Patriots, wasn’t even on the field for this one. Still, it’s the first play he mentions when asked about that season in New England. With the Pats trailing the Giants 28–23 early in the fourth quarter — and their undefeated record hanging in the balance — Brady saw Moss galloping alone through the secondary, and he put his throw on the money.
One play earlier, on a second-and-10 from the Giants’ 35-yard line, Moss had run an identical route. He streaked toward the right sideline, and with a touchdown all but guaranteed with a good pass, Brady badly underthrew him. The beauty of the 2007 Pats, though, is that they didn’t care if a defense knew what they were going to do. While New England’s play call on third-and-10 wasn’t the same as its previous one, Moss’s execution was, and the resulting 65-yard score gave the Patriots the lead with 11:15 left.
This play also gave Brady and Moss the NFL records for passing touchdowns (50) and receiving touchdowns (23), respectively, in a single season. From its terrifying sense of self-assuredness to the history it made, no pass could embody that campaign more.
The Brady-Moss connection was a marriage made in football heaven, one that was apparent from the start. "Those two dudes, man," Stallworth says. "Randy and Brady were so in sync, with such little time together. It was like they had been playing together throughout both of their careers."
2. Brady’s 33-Yard Touchdown Pass to Shane Vereen Against the Texans
Date: January 13, 2013 (AFC divisional round)
New England has built its dynasty on uncovering opponents’ weaknesses and hammering away at them until they crumble. The early stages of any game Bill Belichick coaches become Rogue One: A Patriots Story.
When the Patriots faced the Texans in the 2012 divisional round, that meant mercilessly attacking Houston’s linebackers in coverage. With starting inside backer Brian Cushing on the injured reserve with a torn ACL, backups Bradie James and Barrett Ruud were left to contend with do-it-all back Shane Vereen in coverage. The results were predictable: Vereen punched the ball into the end zone three times, including on this picturesque pass from Brady in the fourth quarter of New England’s 41–28 romp. The Pats’ destruction was so passé at that point that Belichick barely even moved when Vereen cradled the ball and crossed the goal line.
Assembling a diverse stable of backs (and skill players overall) facilitates an approach in which New England can conceivably crown a new hero every game. And from Vereen to Kevin Faulk to James White, underused running backs have always mattered in the Patriots’ most critical moments.
It seems simple enough, but Texans coach Bill O’Brien told Reiss after this January’s divisional round that it takes a guy like Brady — with an implicit knowledge of every choice New England wants to make — to pull it together. "When you study the Patriots, the thing about their backs is that it’s very challenging for a defense," O’Brien said. "And one of the most important parts of it, the quarterback knows and understands how to use them all."
3. Brady’s 2-Yard Touchdown Pass to Wes Welker Against the Dolphins
Date: September 12, 2011
Barely a quarter after whipping this dart to Welker (putting the Patriots ahead 21–14 with 8:23 remaining in the third quarter), Brady completed a 99-yard bomb to his 5-foot-9 slot guy to put Miami away for good. When it comes to the relationship between Brady and Welker, though, there’s more to unpack in a play that goes six feet than in one that traverses the length of the field.
What made Welker so lethal in the New England offense was his initial quickness combined with Brady’s next-level anticipation. Because of Brady’s ability to identify what opposing defenses plan to do before the snap, he makes any receiver who can create instant separation against man coverage virtually unstoppable. The moment Welker started to think about starting his break, the ball was already out of Brady’s hand. In his six years with the Patriots, Welker caught a ridiculous 672 passes; he finished five of those campaigns with at least 110 receptions. No other player in NFL history has more than three such seasons in his career.
These devastating, simple completions have been a pillar of the Pats offense since the days of Troy Brown, and they’re the sort on which Julian Edelman now thrives. Now in his eighth season, Edelman has become one of the most prolific playoff receivers of all time. Only six wideouts — Jerry Rice, Reggie Wayne, Welker, Hines Ward, Michael Irvin, and Andre Reed — have more postseason receptions than Edelman’s 84, and with the Falcons all but guaranteed to play a lot of man coverage (to prevent Brady from dicing up a zone defense, as he did against the Steelers in the AFC title game), he’ll have plenty of chances to work Atlanta’s young corners and add to that total.
4. Brady’s 17-Yard Touchdown Pass to Kenbrell Thompkins Against the Saints
Date: October 13, 2013
In any examination of what’s made Brady the greatest quarterback who ever lived, two traits usually get mentioned right off the bat. One is that Brady is a maniacally competitive human being who carried the slight of being taken no. 199 overall in the 2000 draft through four Super Bowl wins, two MVP awards, and more acclaim than any player could ever dream of. Two is that Brady can identify and dissect coverages in a way that no other quarterback of his era (besides Peyton Manning) could.
What often gets lost in that assessment is how good a passer Brady has been for the majority of his career. And the game winner to Thompkins late in the fourth quarter of this 30–27 win offers a little slice of all three traits in one ice-cold throw.
A week before this game, New England lost at Cincinnati 13–6. With the Pats trailing New Orleans 27–23 and less than 90 seconds remaining, the team was staring down the prospect of dropping two straight for just the ninth time since 2000. The Pats’ existence these past 17 years has been the inverse of Lou Brown talking to his team in Major League II. "If we lose one tomorrow, that’s called a losing streak. It has happened before."
Brady began New England’s final drive with 1:13 to go, flanked by Edelman, Thompkins, Austin Collie, and Aaron Dobson. He completed four of his next six attempts, bringing the offense to the Saints’ 17-yard line. After correctly pegging the coverage before the snap, Brady took a one-step drop and lobbed a perfect ball to Thompkins, who was bolting down the left sideline, for a beautiful score to steal the win with five seconds on the clock. "There’s only really one place for him to put that ball for [Kenbrell] to make the catch," says Patriots play-by-play man Bob Socci, who has filled that role since 2013. "And that just whole drive — it’s kind of like a lifetime achievement award at the Academy Awards. That pass culminates this drive where for the third time, they’re given a last chance to win that game."
It was the type of throw Stallworth saw constantly in his time with Brady in 2007. "It was just incredible to know that you can run your routes as a wide receiver, and depending on how often you get open, you’re going to get the ball," Stallworth says. "If you’re open, the ball is going to find you."
5. Brady’s 22-Yard Touchdown Pass to Rob Gronkowski Against the Seahawks
Date: February 1, 2015 (Super Bowl XLIX)
In the early days of Brady’s relationship with Gronk, the quarterback’s frustration often bubbled to the surface. "[Brady] was like, ‘C’mon, man!’" Reiss says. "‘You can be great.’" As Gronkowski developed from a part-time player into a game-destroying force, the vision Brady had for his tight end came into focus. "Then the light goes on for Gronkowski," Reiss says, "and it’s just pure bliss for Brady to have that."
The Brady-Moss connection was powerful enough to lay waste to entire cities, but despite the duo’s memorable moments, their bond was relatively short-lived. It’s tough to believe in retrospect, but Moss played only 35 full games with Brady in his three-and-a-half-season stint in Foxborough. Even given his injury issues, Gronk has played 86. Edelman has been Brady’s mainstay over the past eight years, but the truly destructive pairing that’s defined the second half of the passer’s career has been with Gronkowski. Including the playoffs, 76 of Gronk’s 77 career touchdown receptions have come from Brady. Only Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates have more as a quarterback–tight end tandem.
Brady has turned plenty of useful receivers into important cogs in the Patriots machine, but what’s made his connection with Gronk so special is their ability to do damage outside that system. "The communication level between those two was so good," says wideout Brandon LaFell, who played with the Patriots from 2014 to 2015. "Everybody wanted that."
When Gronk lined up wide to the right with 36 seconds to go in the second quarter of the Super Bowl against Seattle, he pulled linebacker K.J. Wright with him. By then, no communication was necessary. "I’ll bet my money on Gronk outside against a backer any day," LaFell says. Brady would too, and the well-placed toss to his Terminator of a tight end made for an easy six points in the Pats’ 28–24 win.
"Gronk’s a tough matchup," Brady later told The MMQB’s Peter King. "I’ve seen it for a long time. You put two guys on him, we got three wideouts single-covered. We’ll win those, somewhere. Big, fast, unbelievable hands. He’s got vacuum hands." Sounds like a man who was smitten.
6. Brady’s 51-Yard Touchdown Pass to Moss Against the Jets
Date: September 9, 2007
The first of Brady’s 23 touchdown tosses to Moss in the 2007 season came about two and a half quarters into their opener. The Jets were lined up in a traditional Tampa 2 defense, with inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma assigned to the deep middle of the field. Considering Moss’s go route against that coverage, Brady’s throw should have been aimed about 20 yards to the right, splitting both safeties as Moss tore between them.
His choice to direct the throw outside, though, hints at two subtle parts of Brady’s genius. The first has to do with improvisation; even on a team dedicated to detail like the Patriots, mid-play ad-libbing has been a staple of Brady’s relationship with his receivers. He regularly tells pass catchers to cut routes short or break them off when plays unfold in a certain way, no matter the original design. "You won’t hear that from a lot of quarterbacks because the damn drawing says to go 14 yards," Stallworth says. "But Brady lets you know, especially versus man coverage, it’s all good. ‘Just get open, and I’ll get you the ball.’"
Secondly, what makes this Jets play pure Brady is his choice to bend the ball toward the left sideline. His complete understanding of opponents’ coverage tendencies allows Brady to place his passes in open spaces rather than in specific spots. Plenty of quarterbacks do this to some degree, but Brady’s ability to shape throws all over the field as a means of consistently prying his wideouts open rises to a different level. At times, he resembles a golfer slightly tweaking the trajectory of his shots, launching a fade or a draw depending on the situation.
7. Brady’s 5-Yard Touchdown Pass to Deion Branch Against the Panthers
Date: February 1, 2004 (Super Bowl XXXVIII)
Brady was downright brilliant in New England’s second Super Bowl win, and his 354-yard, three-touchdown display was a pivotal step in his young career. Before that night, Brady had seven 300-yard games, including in the playoffs. His showing against a stout Carolina defense was a sign that he could carry the Pats if necessary.
His most telling throw came with 3:05 left in the second quarter, when Brady faked a quick handoff to running back Kevin Faulk before firing a laser to Branch coming over the middle. It was a solid if not spectacular throw — on time and accurate — but what really stands out is Brady’s play fake. It belongs in a museum. The way he sells the run and hides the ball just enough to fool everyone is a facet of quarterbacking he still does better than anyone else. Even with backfields that haven’t been dominant, play-action has been a constant factor in the Patriots offenses led by Brady. They regularly rank in the top 10 in percentage of passes to include play-action, alongside some of the NFL’s most run-heavy teams.
"Even as a fan now, I’m watching how fluent he does it," says Joe Andruzzi, who played for New England from 2000 to 2004 and was the right guard during this Super Bowl score. "He hides the ball real well and angles his body enough to confuse the defense a little bit. Stuff like that, those little tangible things that you sometimes forget about."
8. Brady’s 59-Yard Touchdown Pass to Branch Against the Bears
Date: December 12, 2010
Reiss still remembers walking from the parking lot to Soldier Field on this blustery December day. The wind was howling around 40 miles per hour, and "being a smaller guy, [I felt] like I’ve got to literally power [through] to get there because the wind was going to take me back," Reiss says. "It was one of those nasty days."
Brady’s toss to Branch that closed out the first half of New England’s 36–7 shellacking stands out to Reiss as one of the moments that truly blew him away. "This one has to be in there," he says. The stakes involved weren’t as high as they were for some of the other plays on this list (although it’s worth mentioning that the Pats’ monster win came against a Chicago team that finished fourth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and went to the NFC title game), but the zip on the missile to Branch is proof, in Reiss’s eyes, of Brady’s prowess as a cold-weather quarterback (which started with his 312-yard effort during a driving snowstorm in the Tuck Rule game). "You had to be there to appreciate it," Reiss says. "It wasn’t just snow. You can throw the ball in snow. But when you combine the snow and the wind …"
The best parts of rewatching this play are unrelated to the throw itself. No one has ever looked more miserable than Belichick, taking an onslaught of sideways sleet to the face, when the camera pans to him. Even more telling, though, was Pats kicker Shayne Graham’s effort on the extra point attempt. He doinked it so far right that it made Brady’s bullet seem impossible.
9. Brady’s Incomplete Pass to Moss Against the Giants
Date: February 3, 2008 (Super Bowl XLII)
It seems odd that someone who’s thrown 61 postseason touchdowns could in any way be defined by an incompletion, but Brady’s desperation bomb to Moss on the Patriots’ final drive of their 17–14 loss to the Giants says as much about him as any throw could.
If an area of Brady’s game has declined in the later part of his career, it’s his ability to push the ball down the field. Watching him uncork deep shots to Moss during that 2007 campaign, though, was a thing of beauty. This was no exception. Following a sack that put New England in a third-and-20 hole with 19 seconds remaining, Brady put everything he had behind a heave to Moss down the left sideline. The ball sailed at least 70 yards in the air, and had it not been for the outstretched hand of Corey Webster, it would have been in the exact spot it needed to be for a score. "It was like slow motion," says Stallworth, who tracked it from the sideline. "Watching it, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before. Moss is going to come down with it somehow. It’s a perfectly thrown ball.’ To see it hit the ground, I was like, ‘Uh oh.’"
All season, that sense of impending dread had been totally foreign to Stallworth and the Patriots. New England’s doomsday machine of an offense made its run to 18–0 possible, but Stallworth says the feeling of playing with Brady was of equal importance. "There was always a sense, playing with Brady, that you were going to win," Stallworth says. "That he would at least put you in a position to win. You don’t get that feeling with many quarterbacks."
10. Brady’s 23-Yard Touchdown Pass to Brandon LaFell Against the Ravens
Date: January 10, 2015 (AFC divisional round)
The Patriots got to the line of scrimmage fast. Down 31–28 with 10:10 left in the fourth quarter, New England’s offense cranked the tempo; as Brady and crew lined up for this first-and-10 just outside the red zone, 23 seconds remained on the play clock. As Brady cycled through his cadence, barking out signals real and fake in an effort to make the Ravens show their hand, LaFell wondered if the Pats would get the snap off in time. "I was like, ‘Man, is he gonna snap the ball?’" LaFell says.
With the seconds ticking down, Brady gave LaFell the signal to run a fade. Beating Baltimore cornerback Rashaan Melvin (a familiar victim for Brady on that night) up the sideline, LaFell reached the goal line when the ball dropped perfectly into his lap for the go-ahead score. "The thing hit me right in my stomach," LaFell says.
Before Brady’s 384-yard outing against the Steelers in this year’s AFC title game, his 367-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Ravens in the divisional round after the 2014 season was the best playoff outing of his career. "People concentrate on the trick plays," Socci says of New England’s 35–31 win, which featured Edelman throwing a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola. "But the way Brady performed against that defense …"
The Patriots trailed by 14 points midway through the third quarter. According to LaFell, you never would have guessed it given the quarterback’s demeanor. Brady’s on-field persona — and its effect on his teammates — is something of a contradiction. At times, he’s a head-butting, fist-pumping, full-throated maniac who acts like anything but a future Hall of Famer. "But then you get to a point where it’s a close game, he’s in the huddle, and it’s like he’s zoned out," LaFell says. "It’s like he’s got a song playing in his head."
Socci likens Brady’s poise to that of biathletes in the Winter Olympics, pounding through the snow before collecting their thoughts, taking a breath, and delivering a bull’s-eye shot. "It’s one of those situations where, he controls himself so good that it allows you to calm down and control yourself like he does," LaFell says.
Three weeks after beating Baltimore, Brady would win his fourth Super Bowl. LaFell says that looking back on his Patriots tenure, no throw sticks out quite like that play, and the way his quarterback looked in the seconds before making it happen. As New England enters its seventh title game with Brady at the helm — in the face of an Atlanta offense that’s the best Belichick and Co. have faced since their first Super Bowl win — it isn’t hard to envision Brady needing to pass for one final score to secure the ring for his thumb.
"What separates Tom is when he gets into those big pressure moments, he’s lights out," LaFell says. "He’s going to be 100 percent on throws, decision-making. You’d look at him, and he had that look like, ‘We always good.’"