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Tom Brady vs. Everyone

Whether it’s time, the Jacksonville defense, the media, history, a sore thumb, or his own coach, the Patriots quarterback has more than one opponent in Sunday’s AFC championship. Eighteen years into his career, he’s never not been up to the task.

Tom Brady Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a story I reported but never wrote about the trend of NFL players wearing yoga pants. The story wasn’t deep enough to warrant publishing, but the one important strand of information that emerged was that players across the league admitted they’d started doing so after Tom Brady made it acceptable by wearing his.

Brady hasn’t just influenced the way Aaron Rodgers eats, Carson Wentz releases the ball, Russell Wilson thinks, and Jimmy Garoppolo waits in the pocket. He’s also influenced the types of pants players wear. He has rewritten NFL record books, redefined the concept of how long and fruitful an NFL career can be, and made players wear Lululemon.

Tom Brady is modern football and vice versa. No player has more effectively shaped his game to his era, and no player has better shaped his era toward himself. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, he will play in his 12th conference championship in his 16 full seasons. This is a ludicrous stretch of success: The NFL is a league that tries to legislate truly great teams out of the sport by using a lottery-free draft and a salary cap in search of competitive balance — and Brady has just dunked on those safeguards for over a decade

This year, though, is different from every one that came before it. At 40, Brady is the oldest quarterback in history to start a conference championship. He is in the midst of a prime that is unprecedented in its length. The normal quarterback aging curve — worse by your mid-30s, done a couple of years later — does not apply. This is so unusual that no one quite knows how to deal with it: The Patriots traded his backup at the deadline, and that backup’s subsequent success has New England’s fan base freaked out about the future.

Brady’s current playoff run is also different because of how much the league has changed. This time around, he is indisputably the only great quarterback left — Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum are capable leaders for their teams, but they are passengers on squads that are carried by other great units. This is the football version of Daniel Day-Lewis getting a Best Actor nomination and his only Oscar competition being Jake and Logan Paul.

When the conference championship weekend narrative is “future–Hall of Fame quarterbacks fill the final four,” as it has been for most years this decade, Brady is the greatest example. When the narrative is “you can win with a bad quarterback,” a Hall of Fame talent like Brady is the outlier. The only constant in the NFL, no matter the trend, is Brady. Forget Deflategate. That is his legacy.

Here is what’s at stake on Sunday: The defining player of the past 15 years plays his most fascinating game in recent memory. He’s about to face a defense seemingly engineered to stop him, he’s battling against a month of stories about friction with his coaches, and now he’s also dealing with a thumb injury of enigmatic severity.

Over nearly 20 seasons, Brady has engineered offenses that can be vertical one year and horizontal the next, focusing on slot receivers until they want to focus on tight ends. Brady has run nearly everything, and has taught himself to make every throw, diagnose every coverage, and, unlike every other quarterback to come through the league, he hasn’t seen his physical capabilities decline while his mental capabilities peak.

Taking a conservative estimation, football has reinvented itself three times since Brady entered the league, and Brady has dominated each era. There is no real football comparison for Brady; most players come into the league and deviate only slightly from the style they started with. Brady is more like John Glenn, who was great at being a fighter pilot, a test pilot, and then an astronaut. He took what the era gave him and owned it.

Brady will be the first of these athletes who dominates into his 40s but not the last. Drew Brees has said he wants to play until he’s 45 — both he and Brady are trained by the same throwing coach, who believes it’s possible. LeBron James will likely be playing at a high level in his fourth decade, too. But what is especially remarkable about Brady is not necessarily how long he’s done it, but how many different versions of himself he’s created.

It seems impossible to believe, but at the start of this run, after the Tuck Rule game in 2002, Bob Ryan wrote that Brady “paper-cuts you to death” and “He is a game manager who simply has the knack of making a little go a long way in a football game.” Brady, incidentally, tied for the league lead in deep completions this year. He has straddled eras and found the perfect route to success each time. In the current age, where completion percentage reigns, he’s had his first back-to-back seasons of completing 66 percent of his passes. This year, when passing to running backs became the tactic du jour, the Patriots had three running backs in the top 20 of receiving at the position, according to DVOA. Brady is as effective at passing over the middle as he is at quarterback sneaks. Other quarterbacks of his era — ahem — famously aren’t even given the authority to audible into a sneak.

So now what? The Jaguars have one of the best defenses of the decade. Three times in his playoff career Brady has played a team that ranks in the top two in points allowed, as the Jaguars do. In those games, the Patriots are 3–0 and Brady has a rating over 100 in each of them. The Jaguars aren’t quite a Tom Coughlin team — he doesn’t coach them; he’s a personnel guy — but the Jaguars are built like the Giants defenses who’ve stopped Brady in the past. They can wreck a game without blitzing because of their talented defensive line, they have multiple corners who lock down receivers, and they have linebackers who can move. Brady’s legacy is secure — he could throw picks on all 30 of his attempts Sunday and still be considered the greatest quarterback of all time.

And yet, Brady is 40 and he is playing against the most talented defense in the league. There’s a famous line Johnny Carson told Steve Martin about show business: “You’ll use everything you ever knew.”

That is Brady on Sunday.

Since their first Super Bowl in 2002, the Patriots’ media sessions have devolved into a sort of meta-event. The reporters know the Patriots will say nothing of substance, and the players are aware that the reporters are aware, which creates a feedback loop that spits out stories about how the players don’t say anything. This week, reporters peppered the Patriots with questions about why they wouldn’t respond to Jacksonville’s shit-talking, particularly cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s boast that the Jaguars are going to win the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick was asked if he instructed his players to say even less than normal to avoid offering up bulletin-board material. When special teams ace Matthew Slater wore a shirt that said “New England vs. Everybody,” it seemed like the moment all the journalists had been waiting for. But when he was asked about the shirt, he said, “I was given this by our equipment staff on my way in here.”

Nearly every story about the Patriots is about this blandness in one way or another. When a Brady story does trickle out, it’s typically about how competitive he is. Like the time he stood almost entirely off a cliff at Pebble Beach to hit a shot because he wanted to lower his score while playing with Belichick. Even Deflategate was a genre of the “Tom Brady is so competitive!” story; it just involved slight cheating and millions of dollars in legal fees.

That is why Seth Wickersham’s ESPN feature, which delved into the tension between Belichick, Brady, and owner Robert Kraft, struck such a chord in New England: Rarely does anything as substantial come out of reporting on the Patriots. Hell, the Patriots have twice been accused in major cheating scandals during Belichick’s reign, and both times the team handled it with nothing but icy glares and nonanswers, moved on, and kept winning Super Bowls. But this particular story has undoubtedly gotten to the Patriots. There has always been a sort of after-one-beer debate among Patriots staffers about who should get the credit in New England. But that was just in-house competition at one of the most competitive organizations the NFL had ever seen; it was never anything that threatened to rip the team apart. The ESPN story suggests this tension between Belichick, Kraft, and Brady very well could.

In the same way Brady has perfected every sort of throw and scheme, he’s also perfected the ability to be as bland as possible in the middle of a hurricane. He’s been through enough scandals and mini-scandals to qualify for the 10,000-hour theory. Enough to ignore it for now.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Brady entered the playoffs on his sixth-worst five-game stretch of his career. Of course, another one of those stretches came in a year the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and Brady’s worst runs are still better than the average play of most quarterbacks to ever suit up for an NFL team.

“In all your years working with Tom Brady, what has impressed you the most about him?” a reporter asked Belichick this week. His response: “Tom is very consistent. He is this year. He always is.”

It is boring, but the reality is that these answers are the truth, and the truth can be boring. But do not be bored by the prospect of what’s to come on Sunday. When the Patriots have the ball, this will be the football matchup you’ve always dreamed of. The Jaguars are built to beat Brady, but Brady is built to beat them because he’s built to beat everyone. He is the perfect modern quarterback, again. Just like he’s been every year since 2001. He’ll use everything he’s ever known.