By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I’m just going to start with this. We’re going to start here.
It’s stupid — S-T-U-P-I-D — to try to say with a reasonable degree of certainty that any single performance is the “best” of Tom Brady’s career. He’s a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, and to many folks, he’s the greatest quarterback to ever put his hands on a football. He’s also played forever. There’s a rather long list of games to choose from.
So no matter which game you pick, there will always be a debate.
With that established, we’ll move on to this: Brady’s performance on Sunday might have been the best of his career.
I know, I know. A 1 p.m. game on a scorching Sunday in September against the Texans won’t inspire 60-minute NFL Films specials any time soon. This was not the most significant win of Brady’s career. But there’s a case to be made that it was the best.
Hear me out.
Brady threw for 378 yards, 5 TDs, and 0 INTs, and he completed more than 70 percent of his passes. He’s hit all of those marks in a game just once before (2009 vs. Tennessee).
Brady did it against a fearsome defense. The Houston defensive backfield may not be prolific, but the combination of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus makes life difficult for quarterbacks. That was evident in Houston’s five sacks and eight QB hits, forcing three fumbles on strip sacks. It didn’t help that the Patriots were without starting right tackle Marcus Cannon, either. Prior to Sunday, Brady had taken five or more sacks in a game six times before in his career. In those games, he threw a total of five touchdowns with three interceptions, averaging just 200 passing yards. On Sunday, he threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns.
The Patriots needed every single completion. Brady had thrown for at least five touchdowns six times before in his career (including playoffs); the average score in those games was 51-16. Their average margin of victory was 35 points. This one, however, was a one-possession game for all 60 minutes. Houston held three different leads. And it looked like it was going to be a Patriots loss right up until Brady delivered the 25-yard game-winning strike to Brandin Cooks with 23 second left to play.
The Patriots had absolutely no rushing game to speak of. The Patriots ran the ball 20 times for a grand total of 59 yards. That’s dreadful. Mike Gillislee was the leading rusher with 31 yards on 12 carries. Brady had six of the rushing yards — 10 percent of the team’s total — himself. Despite that deficiency, New England scored 36 points by putting all of its offensive hope in Brady’s right arm.
It had the drama. It joins a short list — 2013 against the Saints, 2009 against the Bills come to mind — of games that essentially end with a Brady touchdown when the Patriots were trailing in the final minute. It was, essentially, a “walk-off” touchdown pass to Cooks, and it capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive that took just 2:01. You can’t beat that in terms of excitement.
Brady was seemingly unaffected by the sun and the heat. Much younger players were exhausted even before halftime, due to the unseasonable heat in Foxboro. Brady, meanwhile, got better as the game went on. Check this out: In the second half, Brady went 15-for-19 for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He did that despite taking a beating, including two strip-sacks in the second half alone.
Again, you try to say any one of Brady’s 272 career starts was the “best,” you’re taking a risk. And frankly, his most recent performances on the Super Bowl stage weren’t too shabby. Some will point to the three fumbles (one lost) on Sunday as an indicator of non-perfect game.
But, well, it might be as close as he’s ever come as a passer in any game of his Hall of Fame career.