It's the great divide when it comes to debating quarterbacks.
What tells more about a quarterback's excellence? Do the first 58 minutes weigh more than the final two? Would you prefer to have Brett Favre, who will put you in position to win but likely make the Forrest Gump mistake at the end? Or Ben Roethlisberger, who'll look average for much of the night before blossoming for a final drive?
For about 57.5 minutes, Brady's play didn't match the number on his jersey or the name on his back. He was always on the ground. He was erratic. He was skittish. He looked like a student taking a test he forgot to study for.
Then he was Tom Brady. Just in time, he was Tom Brady.
We'll evaluate Mr. Brady's performance, and we'll look at more than one drive. But that drive deserves a little more attention. After all, what counts more, a pop quiz or the final exam?
Another Ryan, another monkey wrench in this mechanical New England Patriots offense.
Anyone picking a 35-point effort from the Patriots was either ignoring or downplaying the Jeffrey Lebowski lookalike patrolling the Dallas sideline. Rob Ryan is one heck of a coordinator. And he, like his brother, knows a thing or two about handling Tom Terrific.
But Sunday, Ryan was managing even better than he could have hoped. All this talk about continuing the streak of 30-point games? Not a chance. Even a mere 20 points was on life support.
When Brady is on, he's as efficient as they get. He's averaged just under 7.5 yards an attempt for his career, and is over nine per throw this season. It's to the point that when Brady cocks back his arm, you can expect a first down to be imminent.
That wasn't the case Sunday. When Brady strolled onto the field with 2:31 to go, he was a pedestrian 19-of-32 for 211 yards and a below-average 63.4 rating. The numbers weren't misleading. He found it hard to locate open receivers and read the defense, and seemed to be rushing his looks.
The Patriots took to running the ball at times because, even against the top-ranked rushing defense, that was their best way to move the ball. With Brady at the helm, the passing offense sputtered, and even when it would get going, turnovers (whether due to Brady or not) derailed the progress.
With 2:31 to go, everything changed. We'll get to that.
A hallmark of Tom Brady's game is that he does not turn the ball over.
The italics are necessary. He holds the record for most consecutive regular-season passes without an interception. He threw 50 touchdowns in 2007 while chucking the ball all over the field and was only taxed eight picks to do it. He threw four—four!—in all of last year.
He's careful with the ball. He makes the defense work to make plays. It's his greatest asset.
But Sunday, he was lacking in that department. His first pick to Terence Newman wasn't moronic, but it wasn't careful either. It was tipped at the line, but a quarterback always deserves even a little bit of blame for tips. After all, he cut it close enough to tempt fate. Still, there was an excuse.
Not so with the second pick. His interception to Sean Lee was that sort of mind cramp that Brady usually is immune to. His arm was hit on the throw, but the decision was straight out of the Brett Favre playbook. It was an off-balance and forced throw, and it came at a moment when the Patriots were desperately trying to get a rhythm. It was reckless, and it almost cost the Patriots the game.
Can we stop with the Tom Brady sissy stuff?
Can we stop saying that Brady doesn't play well under pressure? Can we stop creating this illusion that if Brady doesn't keep his jersey tidy, he becomes an average quarterback?
It's not true. Brady's as tough as any quarterback in the league. He showed it Sunday.
His offensive line betrayed him at times. DeMarcus Ware, with two sacks, was allowed to run rampant. When Ware was denied, Anthony Spencer was more than willing to slam Brady into the turf. He got a personal foul at one point for doing that. The Dallas defense came in aiming to get to Brady, and thanks to good scheme and a sometimes sieve-like line, the Cowboys succeeded.
As a result of the pressure, Brady had to go to quicker looks, and sometimes, the looks weren't there. They needed more time to develop, and Brady wasn't being given that time. It was a challenge the entire night.
But how did Brady respond? He got better.
He figured out the defense. Dallas didn't have an answer for him. Brady was more accurate and more in control of the game at the end than he had been the entire night.
He had bruised and confused, and it didn't matter. The team needed him to bounce back, and he did. Even after Dallas did everything it could to rattle him, he was locked in with the game on the line.
It was the Tom Brady that will forever spring to mind, though we haven't seen it in a while.
This was Super Bowl Brady. This was 2001, '03, '04 Brady, where his numbers were mediocre until they had to be great. And instead, they were perfect.
Since 2007, it had been unclear if he still had this in him. Once Randy Moss arrived, the Patriots offense went from opportunistic to dominant. There was rarely a need to be good in the last two minutes because the last two minutes had become Matt Cassel and Brian Hoyer time while the clock ran down on 45-14 victories.
You're obviously more likely to win if you're dominant for 58 minutes versus dominant for two. But when you're used to blowing out teams, the challenge of a crucial two-minute drill can appear to be overwhelming. And with Brady 0-2 in the playoffs since Super Bowl XLII, there was reason to wonder if the old Tom and the new Tom were the same guys.
Brady's final march was one of the most impressive regular-season drives of his career. He went 80 yards, and was forced to make all the throws. He exploited zone coverage and beat tight man coverage. He found receivers in stride over the middle and outside the numbers. Not to mention, with 22 seconds remaining when Aaron Hernandez caught the final pass for a touchdown, the time was managed perfectly as well.
A quarterback can win games, but sometimes he needs to do more to prove he's a "winner." Brady doesn't need to prove he's one. But if anyone needed a reminder, he supplied it.
For most of the game, Tom Brady wasn't too impressive. Part of it was the defense, not allowing him to be great. Part of it was Brady himself, not letting himself escape mediocrity.
But there is nothing more important for a quarterback to be able to do for his team than what Brady did against the Cowboys. Nothing matters more than how a quarterback plays when the game's on the line.
When the Patriots and Cowboys were duking it out, Brady should've been better. When the Patriots went on a drive and needed to score, he couldn't have been.
This is the Brady the Patriots can hope for in the playoffs. When the playoffs narrows the talent gap, the Patriots will be in more close games. Brady reminded everyone that he still saves his best for those moments.
The rest of the game does deserve to be taken into consideration, however. It was a closer game than it could have been. The Patriots made bad mistakes at bad times, and a lot of that is on No. 12. Even a memorable drive can't erase that.
And one hell of a B+ at that.