By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A game-winning drive. In the fourth quarter. Of the Super Bowl.
It’s the type of moment that every kid dreams of one day experiencing. It’s the type of moment where history is made. It’s the type of moment where Hall of Fame legacies are defined and all-time greatness is established.
Unless, that is, it’s a 41-year-old Tom Brady doing the work at quarterback in that moment. If it’s Brady, and it’s not quite as spectacular or not really as unforgettable or just lacking that special oomph that we’re accustomed to seeing? Well, then we all just shrug our shoulders and collectively say, “Meh, Brady wasn’t even that good tonight.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just about the most incredible thing you could ever say about an NFL quarterback. So, you just led a touchdown drive to break a tie and give your team a lead with seven minutes left in the Super Bowl? That’s cool … I guess.
Really is remarkable, isn’t it?
These are, of course, the moments we hold most dear as football viewers. This is the definition of crunch time. Nothing could be more pressure-packed than playing quarterback in a tied Super Bowl in the fourth quarter. And in that moment this year in Super Bowl LIII against the Rams, Brady nailed it. He was perfect.
Taking over at his own 31-yard line following an uninspiring Johnny Hekker punt, Brady began the drive with 9:49 left in a 3-3 game. He hadn’t been excellent to that point in the game. By any standard, he had been average. By Brady’s own standard, he was bad.
But he began that drive by dropping a picture-perfect lob over the shoulder of linebacker Samson Ebukam and into the arms of Rob Gronkowski. The tight end caught it in stride and burst up the right sideline for a gain of 18 yards.
Next play, with Julian Edelman getting to work over the middle on Lamarcus Joyner, Brady easily threw to his favorite target for a 13-yard catch-and-run. Next play, Rex Burkhead with a quick hitch route on the left sideline for an easy 7-yard pitch-and-catch.
That set up a second-and-3 at the Los Angeles 31-yard line. Already in field goal range, the Patriots decided it was time to take a shot. Barring an interception, the worst that could happen would be a third-and-3, with the comfort of knowing a field goal attempt to try to take a 6-3 lead would await.
Gronkowski lined up in the left slot. Edelman motioned left to right. Brady stood in the shotgun, scanning the field. The Rams tried to mix up the look they were showing Brady just before the snap, but that would hardly matter. Brady knew where he was going with this one the whole time.
And even though a linebacker was hanging on his hip, and even though a former All-Pro corner was trailing not far behind, and even though a safety was lurking over the top looking to make a game-changing interception, Gronkowski looked back toward the line of scrimmage while streaking toward the end zone to see that yet another perfectly thrown ball was headed his way.
Trust, execution, confidence. In the biggest possible moment of the year, it all came together for arguably the best quarterback and most dominant tight end in history.
“It’s crunch time. I knew it was going to come to me. I just had a feeling,” Gronkowski said. “When it comes to crunch time, I always find a way.”
And, with Brady being Brady, the quarterback didn’t care about forcing a pass into the end zone to try to get a touchdown pass on his stat sheet for the night. The quarterback wanted what he always wants. He just wanted to win. Ask him if he’d trade last year‘s stat line (505 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) for this year‘s stat line (262 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) in the Super Bowl if it meant winning the game, and he’d obviously say yes in a heartbeat.
So Brady handed to Sony Michel, and the offensive line — plus Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, and James Develin — simply overpowered and outmuscled the Rams. The rookie running back fell into the end zone with the game-winning points secured in his arms.
This was a championship drive, in a championship moment, driven by championship players. As stated earlier, these are the exact moments that live on forever — at least, they are for franchises that don’t experience six separate championships in a condensed span.
Obviously, being underwhelmed by Brady’s performance to that point of the night was the proper response. He threw an interception on his first pass of the game. He missed James White on two short passes behind the line of scrimmage. He skipped a pass to Chris Hogan off the turf on an in-cut. For whatever reason, the precision and the accuracy was just not quite where it was in the AFC title game in Kansas City. Brady was off … until he wasn’t. And he now has a sixth ring to show for it.
Coincidentally, it was an exact moment like that on which Brady’s entire career and legacy was built. Entering the final drive of Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams back in February 2002, Brady was just 11-for-19 for 92 yards. But with John Madden urging the Patriots to play for overtime, Brady calmly and coolly led the Patriots 53 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. The legend was born.
On Sunday night in Atlanta, Brady more or less did the same thing. He even threw for 117 more yards this time. But given how spectacular he’s been in these moments over the years, this time will probably be remembered as “just one more.” For most quarterbacks, Sunday night would have been the apex of their careers. For Brady, it was a night where there was room for improvement.
And, again, downplaying the impact of Brady in this game is just about the highest compliment any quarterback could ever receive. The man just did what so few are ever capable of doing, but the majority of us walked away largely unimpressed. We’ve seen better.
For most any quarterback in history, a drive like that would have marked the pinnacle of his career. For Brady, it will be seen as the drive that somewhat salvaged an otherwise mediocre night.
If you were ever in a bind and were forced to describe Tom Brady’s historical greatness in just two sentences, that right there might do the trick.