TAMPA — No matter how mediocre the record or how tumultuous the year has been for the Bucs, it would be foolhardy to pick against Tom Brady being in the postseason.
Making the playoffs to Brady is like getting an offer to extend your car service warranty. It has happened with such regularity during his career that you have to dig deep to find the two years he wasn’t part of it.
Only twice since becoming a starter has Brady not led his team to the postseason: In 2002, the Patriots went 9-7 as defending Super Bowl champions and missed out, and in 2008, Brady suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the first quarter of the season opener.
Since then, Brady has reached the playoffs 13 years in a row, including both his previous seasons in Tampa Bay.
Sure, the Bucs are 7-8, but they can win the NFC South with a victory over the Panthers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. It would be only the Bucs’ eighth division title; Brady has won 19.
But even at age 45, winning never gets old for Brady.
“I think the important part is that it’s something that’s earned,” Brady said Thursday. “There’s nothing given, and there’s nothing you really take for granted. Every year there’s something different. I think this year … all of us have dealt with some injuries and a lot of different lineup changes and some tough games and some tough calls and close calls. But we have an opportunity now to do something really positive, and that’s beat a team that’s playing well.”
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who played quarterback for four seasons with the Jaguars, lost to Brady and the Patriots in the AFC wild-card game in 2006. While Brady holds nearly every NFL passing record in his 23rd season, Leftwich still marvels at his consistency for reaching the playoffs.
“You can’t really speak on what we’ve seen and what we’re really seeing right now,” Leftwich said. “There’s nobody else to really compare him to. The consistency that he’s had from the time he became a starter is really unreal. We haven’t seen it. There’s been some consistent players, some Hall of Fame players, but man, this even supersedes that when you think about what he’s doing on a day-in, day-out basis, changing teams and still being a part of that.
“That’s a unique thing. I think it speaks to who he is as a player, how he prepares, why he prepares, why he does all those things. He does all those things to have success in those moments.”
Brady has managed to put the Bucs on the doorstep of the postseason despite having more than his share of personal and professional adversity this year.
He retired for 40 days, left training camp after two weeks for “personal reasons,” and he and Gisele Bundchen divorced after 13 years of marriage.
He has suffered right shoulder and finger injuries. He lost center Ryan Jensen on the second day of training camp to a knee injury and has played behind a rebuilt offensive line.
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The Panthers’ path hasn’t been paved smoothly, either. They fired coach Matt Rhule on Oct. 10; traded two of their best players, running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Robbie Anderson; and waived quarterback Baker Mayfield. But they still have managed to win four of their past six games under interim coach Steve Wilks to put themselves in position to win a division crown.
They also beat the Bucs 21-3 earlier this season.
“They’re playing hard,” Brady said. “They run the ball well. They’re good on defense. Really well-prepared. It’s a big challenge. It’s a great opportunity, and you don’t take it for granted. You go out there and cut it loose and play your best. That’s what this team has an opportunity to do.”
The Panthers will try to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands with a strong ground game led by running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard.
Leftwich knows there will be a premium on starting fast on offense with Brady to get the Panthers out of their comfort zone.
But the biggest thing the Bucs have going for them, as usual, is Brady and his history of leading his team out of the regular season. The evidence suggests it wouldn’t be wise to bet against him.
“He loves the game, and he loves these moments,” Leftwich said. “We’ve got an opportunity to win the division Sunday. Everything we said we wanted to do, we have that opportunity.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
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