Tom Brady will have to step up his game a level if he is to match Joe Montana's legacy and win a fourth Super Bowl ring next month.
His two performances in the playoffs couldn't be more different. A six-touchdown masterpiece against the Denver Broncos was followed by Sunday's flat display in the AFC Championship game.
The Baltimore Ravens might be the best defense that Brady has faced all season, but speaking on-field after the game, his assessment of his contribution (239 yards, 0 TDs, 2I NT) was as honest as it was accurate:
"Well, I sucked pretty bad today, but our defense saved us. I'm gonna go out and try and do a better job in a couple of weeks."
Two plays stand out from Sunday's game. First, an overthrown pass up the seam to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots' second possession reduced a certain touchdown to a field goal.
Second, the fourth-quarter pick on a long bomb to Matthew Slater was a terrible decision.
Having won the ball back on the previous play—a Brandon Spikes interception—and with a three-point lead, the risk of throwing into double coverage to your fifth receiving option far outweighed the potential of killing the game off then and there.
By handing the ball back to Joe Flacco just moments after he gave it away, the defense had to step up and make another play. No wonder Brady was grateful to his teammates.
The Patriots are 4-6 over the past three seasons in games in which Brady throws more than one interception. Bill Belichick will be pounding that message into the players all week: Protect the football.
Brady won't need to hear it—nobody judges him harsher than himself—but ball security starts with him in Indianapolis.