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Once again, New England is stuck watching Tom Brady in January

John Romano | Those hopes of a Patriots-Bucs Super Bowl went down in flames on the first weekend of the NFL playoffs.
Does this look like a man too old to win three more games? While 24 other teams are already dreaming about next season, Tom Brady and the Bucs are back in the hunt for another Super Bowl.
Does this look like a man too old to win three more games? While 24 other teams are already dreaming about next season, Tom Brady and the Bucs are back in the hunt for another Super Bowl. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jan. 17

TAMPA — Five weeks ago, the Bucs were 10-3, the Patriots were 9-4 and the world was agog at the thought of Tom Brady facing Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl.

Yeah, so much for that fantasy.

If the wild-card weekend taught us anything, it is that Brady will never have to look back in regret. Last season’s Super Bowl was already ample vindication, but now Brady can be certain that he picked the proper moment to put New England in his rearview mirror.

If anything, he may have stayed there a year too long.

By now, we all know it wasn’t Brady’s limited mobility or aging arm that led to New England’s one-and-done performance in the 2019 postseason. It was the thin and weak group of players surrounding him.

Related: The only records left for Tom Brady to break are his own

Even after Belichick spent an NFL-record amount of money for free agents in this past offseason, the Patriots still did not have a Super Bowl-quality lineup.

Brady, meanwhile, just keeps on winning.

The 31-15 victory against the Eagles on Sunday was already Brady’s fifth playoff win in his two seasons in a Tampa Bay uniform. That total may sound puny in the context of his 35 career postseason victories, but those five wins should not be taken lightly.

Tom Brady looks toward Eagles cornerback Zech McPhearson (27) and running back Boston Scott (35) in the fourth quarter.
Tom Brady looks toward Eagles cornerback Zech McPhearson (27) and running back Boston Scott (35) in the fourth quarter. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

That’s more playoff victories than Hall of Famers Dan Fouts and Warren Moon had in their entire careers. It’s more than Matt Ryan or Tony Romo or Boomer Esiason. It’s the same number of postseason wins that Philip Rivers had in 17 seasons with the Chargers and Colts.

So, yeah, even a first-round victory against an outclassed opponent should be something to celebrate for any NFL quarterback.

And the fact that Brady is winning with his leading receiver (Chris Godwin) and his top two running backs (Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones) on the sideline is all the more remarkable.

Brady carved up the Philadelphia defense, directing passes to two receivers, two tight ends and one running back just on the opening drive. With the Eagles keeping their safeties deep, Brady methodically moved down the field collecting tiny chunks of yardage at a time.

“I don’t think there is anyone better than Tom Brady at playing that game of dumping it down, dishing it off, whatever it is,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski. “He has been doing it his whole career. He’s been winning his whole career like that, just dishing and diving, throwing it underneath.”

And then, when the Eagles adjusted their defense, Brady went over the top to hit Mike Evans for gains of 16, 17, 18 and 36 yards later in the game.

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This is the kind of stuff Bucs coach Bruce Arians envisioned when chasing Brady in free agency in the spring of 2020. While he leaves the game plan and game-day chores to offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Arians is still a play-caller at heart.

He came to prominence in the NFL as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh for Ben Roethlisberger and thrives on the cat-and-mouse game between a quarterback and a defense.

“Yeah, that’s fun. That’s the most fun there is for me in this game, you know, when I was calling plays,” Arians said. “Watching your quarterback not getting caught up in who is catching the ball, just throwing to the guys who are open and not forcing it downfield. You can get just as many yards, dinking and dunking and making first downs. Watching (Brady) play, he’s a surgeon.”

Tom Brady (12) congratulates tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) after his touchdown against the Eagles.
Tom Brady (12) congratulates tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) after his touchdown against the Eagles. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

None of this means the Bucs are destined to be better than the Patriots going forward. There’s a chance Tampa Bay will crash down a salary-cap rabbit hole in 2022, and the Bucs should definitely be in rebuilding mode by 2023.

But while Brady was trying to maximize the final years of his career and the Bucs were trying to take advantage of a roster that was about to peak, they found each other at an opportune moment.

As for New England?

After 20 years of being spoiled by Tom Brady, they discovered January can be a cold and unforgiving month when the other team has a better quarterback.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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