From Spygate to Deflate-Gate. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots seemingly cannot avoid some sort of controversy whenever the club is preparing to play in a Super Bowl. Say whatever you will about the amount of air that was or was not inside of the footballs used by Brady and the New England offense against the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, the Colts were on paper and on the field simply outmatched and overpowered by a dominant New England team in that 45-7 blowout. Footballs being properly inflated would not, for one example, have prevented New England running back LeGarrette Blount from hitting the Colts for 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the blowout win.
Moving on from whether or not the Patriots did bend the rules to obtain an advantage over the Indianapolis defense – and they probably did, because if you aren't cheating, then you aren't trying – conversations regarding the legacy held by Brady heading into the Super Bowl XLIX showdown involving the Patriots and Seattle Seahawks have begun to resurface. Brady already has his spot in the Hall of Fame guaranteed to him, and those who would think otherwise either have some sort of agenda against Brady or they possess so little football knowledge that their opinions on this topic should not be considered.
Brady's place in a list of the believed-to-be greatest National Football League quarterbacks of all-time varies per person and per time of year. He is a sure-thing top-five quarterback when the matter is brought up in the months of August and September. Brady climbs in such imaginary lists, though, once December and January roll around. Having made his name in postseason play during the first five years of his pro career, Brady helped guide the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships during that time. He was named the Most Valuable Player for two of those contests. Brady was, in the winter of 2005, seemingly on the verge of coasting to being regarded as the greatest quarterback to ever play the position.
Brady, wide receiver Randy Moss, and the rest of the New England offense put up historic numbers during the 2007 regular season, and the Patriots won 18 straight games en route to being 14-point favorites to defeat the New York Giants at Super Bowl XLII and complete the perfect season. Not so fast. The defense of the Giants held Brady in check until the Patriots went ahead in the fourth quarter, but New York QB Eli Manning rallied the Giants down the field. Manning's escape, the David Tyree helmet catch, and Manning connecting with Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone all put the Giants up with 35 seconds left on the clock.
Brady's pursuit of perfection almost found new life when he launched a deep pass toward Randy Moss, who had appeared to create enough separation from two defensive backs. New York cornerback Corey Webster left his feet to make the necessary stop, keeping the ball out of the hands of Moss. Only human and unable to pull off the miracle, Brady was unable to keep the Vince Lombardi Trophy and Most Valuable Player award out of the hands of the younger Manning brother. It was the first time that Brady has tasted defeat in a Super Bowl, but he would have a chance to avenge that loss four years later.
The football gods once again did not smile upon Brady at Super Bowl XLVI. With the Patriots again leading the Giants in the fourth quarter of a Big Game, Manning led his offense down the field on a drive that began with Mario Manningham making an incredible catch down the left sideline. The only drama remaining by the time New York entered the red zone was if the Giants would sit on the ball to kick a game-winning field goal or go for the touchdown. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw accidentally eliminated the need for any such debates when he fell backward into the end zone after he was unable to stop his momentum at the one-yard line.
Brady's last chance at revenge began on his own 20-yard line with 57 seconds left on the clock. With the Giants sitting back to prevent the big play, New England entered the middle of the field with nine seconds to play. Then, with the clock ticking down, Brady delivered a Hail Mary pass that made its way into the end zone. Rob Gronkowski was the closest Patriots player able to come down with the football, but he was a yard too far and a second too late to make what would have been the greatest catch in Super Bowl history. Manning and the Giants had once again gotten the best of Brady.
Why this stroll down Memory Lane? The reason is that Brady's level of overall greatness lives and dies on his playoff performances, because he will never be the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. Ever. That honor will go to either Brett Favre or Peyton Manning. Manning will likely run away with that label if he returns for at least one more year and passes Favre for the most career passing yards in the history of the league. On regular season numbers alone, Brady does not match up to the man who has been his main rival over the past decade and a half.
Brady's three Super Bowl rings to Manning's one is what gives Brady the advantage in terms of overall greatness. Brady would, in leading the Patriots past the Seahawks on February 1st, join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only three men in NFL history to have won the Super Bowl as starting quarterbacks on four occasions. Brady will, so long as he remains healthy up through the start of February, make history by being the first quarterback to ever start in six Super Bowl games. That alone is impressive, of course, but Brady has to do more than just show up against Seattle to be called the best quarterback ever.
Super Bowl XLIX isn't just about quantity for Brady's legacy. It's about quality. Manning and the Denver Broncos were thrashed by the punishing defense of the Seahawks in February of 2014, and that unit is playing just as well now as it was a year ago. Brady is going to have the opportunity to do what his peer could not: Beat the best defense in the NFL on pro football's biggest stage. Fair or not, that is the final hurdle that stands in the way of Brady matching and perhaps even passing Manning, Bradshaw, Favre, and Montana to become the No. 1 QB of all-time.
Think of it like this: Imagine a scenario where the Patriots lose to the Seahawks, Brady never wins another Super Bowl, and Eli Manning wins one more title and one more Super Bowl MVP award. Both Brady and Manning would possess three rings, but Manning would have an additional MVP award and a perfect Super Bowl record to Brady's 3-3 Super Bowl mark. How, in such a world, could Brady be called the greatest quarterback of all-time? Brady could prevent those discussions from becoming reality by doing what Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers nearly did in the 2015 NFC Championship game.
Brady has to beat Seattle.
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