By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Enough is enough.
That has to be the mind-set and mentality of Tom Brady, the 41-year-old quarterback who’s dedicated his entire life to winning football games, after last weekend’s fiasco in South Florida. It was a game the Patriots should have won and basically won. Until they didn’t.
That game produced the fourth loss of the season for the Patriots. And four losses in a single season is about all that Tom Brady can stomach. He hasn’t lost more than four games in a single season since 2009, going almost an entire decade without having to feel the sting of a fifth regular-season loss. In his 16 seasons as a starting quarterback prior to 2018, he lost five games in a season just three times.
The idea of losing a fifth game now, at this age, must physically repulse him. The idea of losing to the Steelers, in Pittsburgh, must nauseate him.
We’re going to see the manifestation of those feelings come late Sunday afternoon. The game has all the makings of an all-time performance out of the greatest quarterback to ever play the sport.
Pittsburgh’s defense is not prepared.
For one, the Steelers’ defensive unit is never prepared for Tom Brady. By now you’ve certainly heard the numbers that Brady has posted against his chief AFC rival throughout his career. Whether it was Tim Lewis way back when, or Dick LeBeau for more than a decade, or Keith Butler over the past few seasons, no Pittsburgh defensive coordinator has been able to devise anything to slow down Brady. Condensing it down to just this current era of the Patriots roster, Brady has thrown 10 touchdowns and one interception while completing 73 percent of his passes for an average of 298 yards per game in his last four meetings with Pittsburgh. The Patriots won all four games, scoring an average of 30 points per game.
This year should be no different.
The Steelers’ pass defense has put up a lot of sacks this year. Forty-five to be precise, which is the second-most in the entire NFL. Pretty good.
But there’s this: The Steelers rank 24th in opponents’ passer rating at 97.8. They’re tied for having the second-fewest interceptions, with just six. They rank 21st in passing touchdowns allowed, with 21.
Now add this: In their 13 games, the Steelers have faced a top-10 quarterback just three times. One was Patrick Mahomes, who lit them up for five touchdowns, 326 yards, and no picks. Another was Philip Rivers, who threw for 299 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Matt Ryan threw for 285 yards, one touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Here’s the who’s who of starting quarterbacks that the Steelers have had to face this year: Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco (twice), Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield, Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Derek Carr.
Here’s where those quarterbacks’ passer ratings rank, respectively, in the NFL: 32nd*, 28th, 23rd, 21st, 28th, 17th, 29th, 27th, 16th.
(*Taylor hasn’t played enough to officially qualify, but that’s where he would slide in.)
Those nine quarterbacks combined to throw 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games. (Three of those picks came from Fitzpatrick, with one each from Newton, Mayfield and Taylor.) Those nine quarterbacks have combined for a 91.5 passer rating. And that’s the group of bad quarterbacks.
The good quarterbacks — that is, Mahomes, Rivers and Ryan — have combined to throw eight touchdowns and zero picks against Pittsburgh. In those three games, the quarterbacks put forth a combined 126.7 passer rating. That’s a passer rating that would rank No. 1 in the NFL, six points better than NFL leader Drew Brees.
Put simply, when good quarterbacks have played the Steelers, they’ve played better than the best quarterback in the NFL.
Now enter Tom Brady, fresh off a loss during which he threw the ball with precision and power but also made an uncharacteristic mental gaffe that cost his team critical points, looking to maintain playoff positioning as a top team in the conference, and looking to do so against a team he’s always dominated, in a building where he’s always excelled.
All the signs are pointing to a dynamite day of football from Tom Brady.
While Brady’s overall numbers this year remain below his standards, he’s still Tom Brady. Some of his throws last week — the touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson serving as the best example — were among his best of the season. And while his 23 touchdown passes have him sitting just outside the top 10 in the NFL, that has not been without reason.
On 13 possessions this season, the Patriots possessed the football inside the opponent’s 10-yard line without letting Brady throw even a single pass. Overall on the season, when the Patriots have had the ball inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, the Patriots have largely relied on the running game to try to put touchdowns on the board. On the one hand, it’s been moderately successful, as New England ranks tied for fourth with 16 rushing touchdowns on the season. At the same time, the Patriots have only scored touchdowns on 62 percent of their red zone trips, leaving them firmly in the middle of the pack.
That inability to finish drives with touchdowns has weighed on the Patriots’ players and coaches for the bulk of the season, as they’ve all had to answer questions about the red zone failures for weeks on end. The lack of red-zone targets for Rob Gronkowski, one of the world’s best options to catch touchdowns, has garnered a lot of attention.
Clearly, the Patriots’ offensive strategy has been a little bit different this year. Clearly, it could use a little work.
And with last week’s loss no doubt ruining Brady’s entire week, that’s where the “enough is enough” mind-set may take over. Perhaps this is the week that the veteran quarterback sits down with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and determines that it’s time to get aggressive, and it’s time to throw some touchdowns. If ever an opportunity called for it, it would be this one.
As for how the rest of the game plays out, well, we were all reminded last week in Miami to never take anything for granted — not when the New England defense is involved. Many of those flaws from the Pittsburgh pass defense could be applied when discussing the unit that will be tasked with slowing Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. If the Steelers’ QB holds up his end of the bargain, we could be in for an old-fashioned basketball-style shootout on Sunday in Pittsburgh. (Worth noting, though: The Patriots are top five in the NFL with 14 interceptions, while Roethlisberger’s 13 picks are tied for second-most in the league.)
The resolution to that part of the equation remains unknown. But one thing we can already know long before this game kicks off is that Tom Brady is going to have himself a day against the Steelers. Patterson, Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, James White and Josh Gordon will all be heavily involved. (Chris Hogan, too, if the Steelers once again forget he exists.) Jim Nantz and Tony Romo will be driving America crazy with their praise of the quarterback, whose age will be mentioned innumerable times during the broadcast.
At a point in the season where his team desperately needs it, Tom Brady is in position to provide a vintage performance. You’d be crazy to believe that he won’t deliver.