Tom Brady took the Patriots to 13 AFC championship games, got to the Super Bowl nine times with them and won six rings. He’s now 1 for 1 in NFC championship games with the Buccaneers, taking Tampa Bay to a home game in Super Bowl 55.
Brady can’t match everything he did in New England in one year. But considering the degree of difficulty tied to new challenges — a virtual offseason and no preseason while starting somewhat from scratch at age 43 — this latest NFL playoff run is greater than anything we have seen before from the greatest of all time.
Brady ended up being less pretty and more gritty Sunday in outdueling Aaron Rodgers and the Packers 31-26 in Lambeau Field. But despite three interceptions, Brady was plenty efficient (20-of-36 passing, 280 yards, three TDs, 7.6 yards per attempt, 108.6 rating) and made all the necessary winning plays — including his legendary 39-yard scoring strike to Scotty Miller right before halftime.
The game played out much like most of Brady’s first regular season in Tampa did. There were frustrating mistakes, including errant passes, missed connections with receivers who ran shaky routes and drops. The running game was inconsistent. The defense stopped the run as usual and delivered a strong edge pass rush, but it had lapses in coverage all over the field.
Like in the regular season, in which the Bucs went 11-5 to earn a No. 5 seed as Brady’s first wild-card team, the Buccaneers put it all together in the right situations. Like their two previous road playoff games with Brady, they found a way to shut the door in the fourth quarter with complementary football.
Brady didn’t come to the Bucs expecting them to roll through the top-heavy NFC the way many of his Patriots teams did in the often-weak AFC. There was a lot of unfamiliarity, both for him with his new coaching staff and his young teammates with him. There wasn’t the automatic three-phase discipline he enjoyed so long with Bill Belichick, or an offensive playbook that had become second nature under Josh McDaniels.
With New England no longer being the right place to support his talent, he had to hand-pick a team he thought had the potential to break through and win championships. To say he chose wisely with the Bucs is one of the biggest understatements in NFL history.
Brady’s 2020 season was one of his most brilliant statistically (40 TDs, 12 INTs, 7.6 yards per attempt, 102.2 rating), on par with his three MVP campaigns. Along the way, he had to mesh his quick-release and short-to-intermediate sensibilities from the Patriots with an aggressive downfield passing game with the Buccaneers.
The Bucs had no doubts about Brady’s arm strength, and he took every calculated opportunity to show it off, especially with field-stretching wide receivers as talented as Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and Miller. But when he needed different kinds of chain-moving and scoring plays, he went to his old reliable tight end, Rob Gronkowski, and his new reliable tight end, Cameron Brate. Through it all, slot ace Chris Godwin — when healthy — was his go-to guy and rookie Tyler Johnson was his secret weapon.
That’s how Brady operated a Bucs offense minus Brown to a tee against the Packers, while also knowing that Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones have been taking turns as the hot hand in the rushing attack. His offensive linemen overachieved for him as they continued to protect the GOAT.
There was a lingering question whether the Patriots’ dynasty was more Belichick or Brady. Belichick’s Patriots missing the AFC playoffs while Brady’s Buccaneers won the NFC championship doesn’t end that argument, but it confirms the type of winning energy Brady takes away and gives to a team.
The Bucs proved there is a lot of talent surrounding Brady. Many of their big defensive pieces in 2020 also played key roles in 2019, and the holdover wide receivers and tight ends were big attractions even before Brady recruited Gronkowski and Brown to put them over the top.
Brady also has been a conduit to head coach Bruce Arians and an extension of general manager Jason Licht. He met the challenge of motivating and empowering a whole different group of players on and off the field.
At the same time, he played at a very high level and answered those who doubted, including the Patriots, whether he could still do so while growing another year older. Brady went through Drew Brees’ No. 2 Saints and Rodgers’ No. 1 Packers in their buildings, and his Bucs went significantly farther than Russell Wilson’s No. 3 Seahawks.
Those are the NFC’s three other active Super Bowl-winning QBs and future Hall of Famers. Brady pushed the Buccaneers to be better than all those teams in the end, much like he owned Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco over all those years in the AFC.
It was as if Brady encapsulated 20 seasons with the Patriots into this memorable run with Tampa Bay, inventing the “Buccaneer Way” and perfecting it over a much shorter period of time. He did all of that with a chip on his shoulder and a smile on his face, to go with a rejuvenated mind and body.
When it seemed as though Brady had passed the torch to Patrick Mahomes and other young guns, he dug deep to find one more way to impress us and pad his resume. With the Patriots, things began to look easy with the perennial Super Bowl trips. With the Buccaneers, everything was much harder, and it still didn’t matter — the GOAT got his typical awesome results.