It's possible that Sunday's 36-17 New England AFC Championship Game was the best playoff game of Tom Brady's career. There have been some doozies:
- The wipeout of Jacksonville in the divisional round of the 18-1 season in which Brady threw for more touchdowns (three) than incompletions (two).
- The 2012 divisional win over Denver in which he threw for six touchdowns (though one was to Aaron Hernandez and therefore shouldn't count).
- Super Bowl XLIX, when he threw 50 times, twice for fourth-quarter touchdowns to ultimately beat the Seahawks in what remains the Patriots' last title.
But man, he was fantastic Sunday: 32-of-42, 384 yards, three touchdowns, total control and dominance over every facet of the game. It was as complete a postseason game as the quarterback with the most postseason victories has ever played. Now, today, most of the focus is on Brady's desire for revenge, his (justified, I'd argue) fury over Deflategate pushing him to previously unreached heights, all part of a master plan to make Roger Goodell eat his own feces when he hands Brady the Super Bowl MVP trophy in Houston in two weeks. And this is a most reasonable focus: Those who argued that Deflategate would follow Brady around the rest of his career turned out to be correct, just not in the way they might have imagined.
But to me, the most astounding thing about Brady is the thing that, because he (apparently) eats so well and seemingly refuses to age, we tend to talk about the least: He is old. He is so, so old.
Tom Brady turned 39 before this season started. This makes him the oldest non-kicker in the NFL. This makes him one of the 50 oldest players in NFL history. Here is what some of the other great quarterbacks throughout NFL history were doing when they were 39 years old:
- John Elway: retired.
- Brett Favre: having a miserable single season as the Jets' quarterback, before having a brief resurgence with the Vikings at the age of 40.
- Peyton Manning: winning a Super Bowl, sure, but unable to throw the ball farther than 10 yards down field and notching just seven touchdowns to go with 17 interceptions.
- Dan Marino: retired.
- Joe Montana: retired.
- Johnny Unitas: barely hanging on with the Colts before one sad final year in San Diego.
No one looked at any of those quarterbacks, even the ones who had some success, and ever thought, "this might be as good as he's ever been." And those are the best quarterbacks. Brady is in that spot right now. He is peaking at 39.
Suffice it to say, this is absurd. Favre and Manning are the only quarterbacks older than Brady to win a playoff game, but Manning was just barely hanging on last year and Favre was, well, about to throw the most painful interception in recent playoff memory, one you would bench a 21-year-old rookie for throwing. In case you've forgotten (and this video is never not funny):
Can you imagine Brady throwing any sort of pass like that? Brady is the platonic ideal of a quarterback right now, someone who appears to be, if anything, on the upswing rather than someone wrapping all of this up. All of those other quarterbacks, when they hit the back half of their 30s, dealt with constant questions about whether this would be their last season, if this would be the year they walked away. Brady never gets these questions. Nobody even bothers.
This is particularly noteworthy because this is the bizarre expectation we have of all of our legendary quarterbacks. We want them to win multiple Super Bowls, break records and, when they come to the end of their career, stick the landing. Elway was the only quarterback who ever really did this -- even though Manning won a Super Bowl in his final game, he was more riding along for the victory than personally driving the train, so it doesn't quite have the same oomph -- and no one else has come all that particularly close. In any other context, Brady, a 39-year-old man whose Hall of Fame credentials have long been secured, would be peppered with questions over the next fortnight: "Is this your last game?" and, "Do you see this as a chance to go out a champion?" They wouldn't be unreasonable questions, after all. This would be the ideal time to walk away, with a Super Bowl win, becoming the first man to win five, with the final middle finger to the commissioner he despises. It's the way any quarterback would want to go out.
But Brady's performance has altered this calculus. You wouldn't ask such questions of Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan, right? So why ask them of Tom Brady? They're playing at the same level. You don't ask someone who is better than anyone else on the planet at what they're doing when they're going to stop.
For crying out loud, Brady is the same age as David Ross, whom we all just spent the World Series treating like he was Gandalf. When you are soaring as high as he is right now, no one's going to treat you like that.
Of course, one of the downsides of being so great for so long -- maybe the only downside -- is that you end up becoming the villain. Brady might be the most despised athlete in the NFL right now, for some reasons justified (his friendship with President Trump and, even worse, Seth MacFarlane, not to mention he was the worst SNL host in a decade), some less so (Deflategate, namely; why was he supposed to give Roger Goodell his private phone, exactly?). One of the main reasons Brady never gets the wizened-vet love we typically provide players his age is because, well, he's still so reviled by so many opposing fans: No one thought of Alex Rodriguez as a wise old sage either. But A-Rod wasn't what Tom Brady is at 39. No one is, or has been. Tom Brady hasn't just made himself forget his age. He's made the rest of us do it. And you know what the weird thing is? I can't help but wonder if I'm gonna be writing this same column about him in five years.