He was skittish. He was inaccurate. He was unsettled. He was erratic. And yet, when he had to be, Tom Brady was Tom Brady.
Like he's done numerous times in his Hall of Fame career, Brady shrugged off the bad and embraced the chance to be great. He led the Patriots on a go-ahead scoring drive, and then what should have been a winning one with 1:36 left. If the New England defense could keep Eli Manning from marching 80 yards in less than 100 seconds, Brady leads the Patriots to a win they in no way, shape or form deserved.
But that's been the hallmark of Brady's career. He's been dominant and he's been patient, explosive and methodical, but when he's really at his best, he's peaked in the moments that matter most.
When a quarterback is on the fast track to Canton, there are several impressive examples of his offensive acumen to choose from. Brady is no different. The following are the most impressive games of Brady's career, the ones that best build his case as one of the most prolific field generals of all time. The ones that made his watchers think "Jeez, this guy can really play."
Some top Brady games didn't make the countdown, including:
- Brady's arrival, a 29-26 overtime victory over San Diego in 2001 in which he rallied the Patriots by going 33-of-54 for 364 yards and two touchdowns.
- The 2001 playoff win over Oakland in the snow, when he went 32-of-52 for 312 in a 16-13 overtime win.
- His MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams.
- A 39-of-54, 410-yard, four-touchdown effort in a 41-38 overtime win over Kansas City in 2002.
- The Super Bowl XXXIX victory over Philadelphia.
- A 48-27 victory over Dallas in 2007, in which he threw for 388 yards and five scores.
- Last year's Thanksgiving victory over Detroit, when he went 21-of-27 for 341 yards, four scores and a perfect 158.3 rating.
The following games, however, were more impressive for varying reasons.
Score: New England 30, Denver 26
Brady's line: 20-of-35, 350 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 108.0 rating
Tom Brady had already started his legendary story by the 2003 season, but when the Patriots traveled to Denver for a Monday Night showdown in November, it had lost a little of its luster. After all, the Patriots had missed the playoffs the year before, and even with a 6-2 record, they hadn't notched that defining win yet.
That changed in the Mile High City. With the Patriots down 24-23 and backed up against their own goal line on fourth down with 2:49 left, coach Bill Belichick opted for a safety. He took the points because he trusted his defense on a longer field (trusting a Patriots defense? Imagine that), and he had faith in putting the ball in the 26-year-old Brady's hands with the game on the line.
The defense held, Brady got his chance and he came through. On the road and in an environment the Patriots often struggle in, Brady needed to drive far enough for a field goal. He did better, going all 58 yards and hitting David Givens with a perfect pass for the lead, and the win, with 30 seconds left.
Brady had kept the Patriots in it all game long. He was even better with the pressure on him, setting up a special win in what ended up being a special year.
Score: New England 34, Pittsburgh 13
Brady's line: 32-of-46, 399 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 125.2 rating
Anthony Smith chose the wrong team—and man—to pick on.
Before the Steelers met the 12-0 Patriots, the Pittsburgh safety had said his team would end New England's perfect season bid. He was wrong.
From the start, Tom Brady had the gas pedal pushed all the way down. He found Randy Moss for a four-yard touchdown pass on the Patriots' second drive, making it 7-3, and he torched Smith on the first play of the next drive, finding Moss behind the entire Steeler defense for a 63-yard touchdown.
Brady jawed with Smith all the way toward the end zone. The Steeler's words had made an impact, but not the one he had hoped for.
Later in the game, Brady made possibly the best throw of his career, completing a flea flicker with a 56-yard touchdown bomb to Jabar Gaffney, who was being defended by—of course—Smith.
By the time the game was over, Brady and the Pats had made a statement, and New England had pulled off one of its final dominant performances of the year.
Score: New England 41, Pittsburgh 27
Brady's line: 14-of-21, 207 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 110.2 rating
It wasn't the best situation for Tom Brady. It was the AFC Championship Game, sure, but it was against the 15-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, and it was at Heinz Field, where the Steelers were 8-0 during the regular season, one of the wins being a 34-20 victory over New England on Halloween. The Steelers had a fast, physical and mean defense, the best in the league.
Oh, and Brady was still recovering from being hospitalized with the flu. That didn't make things any easier.
Still, Brady played, and he went right to work in taking apart a team that had been untouchable in its home surroundings. Brady led an offense that cruised all night long, and he showed terrific accuracy on passes of all lengths, all over the field. His 60-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch, which gave New England a 10-0 lead, was perfect, and he also hit Branch for a 45-yard gain later in the game.
His stats were relatively modest, but he still led four touchdown drives on a big stage against a terrific opponent. Considering those circumstances, as well as his own health, it's a performance that will always spring to mind when Brady's name is mentioned years from now.
Score: New England 38, Miami 24
Brady's line: 32-of-48, 517 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, 121.6 rating
Tom Brady's earned many adjectives throughout his career. Some are more common than others. Those include "surgical," "accurate" and "precise."
All of those words were appropriate on the first Monday night of this season, when Brady's pinpoint control was on display at a level rarely seen before.
In the oppressive South Florida heat, Brady was unconscious. He threw for a personal high of 517 yards, and though 99 of them came on one pass to Welker, it doesn't diminish his lights-out performance. He went in the history books for his effort, and deservedly so.
Brady threw as often and completed as many passes as he did in his Super Bowl XXXVIII MVP performance (more on that later), and he averaged more than a first down per throw. He was hitting every route and to every receiver. He found Welker short, Matthew Slater and Aaron Hernandez deep and Rob Gronkowski and Deion Branch on everything in between.
Even Chad Ochocinco had a catch. I'm telling you, Brady was on that night.
The 99-yard pass to Welker was Brady's night encapsulated in one moment. Brady's throw arced over Dolphins cornerback Benny Sapp's head and into Welker's hands, in stride, down the left sideline. It was a throw that, for many quarterbacks, is picked off and run back the other way. For Brady, however, it was history.
Everyone watching knew how good Brady was, and how explosive he could be, but this game certainly provided a strong reminder.
Score: New England 39, Pittsburgh 26
Brady's line: 30-of-43, 350 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 117.4 rating
On Nov. 14 of last year, the Patriots were an enigma. Their defense was struggling, the offense, recently deprived of Randy Moss, was running hot-and-cold. Furthermore, a 34-14 blowout loss to Cleveland just led to there being more and more questions regarding the quality of the team.
With a big game against eventual AFC North champion Pittsburgh approaching, the Patriots needed someone to step up. Brady answered the call.
No. 12 was dialed in all game, shredding the vaunted Steelers defense while going up and down their home field. He hit rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski for three scores, and always came through when the Steelers threatened to close the gap by leading the Patriots to touchdowns.
That was the game in which he famously called his teammates together for a sideline speech following a botched third-down play. He made it clear he was expecting perfection, and he did his part on the night. It was the most impressive showing in what became one of the most impressive seasons for a quarterback in NFL history.
The victory, which few were giving the Patriots a chance at following their letdown against the Browns, was a turning point for the year. The Patriots didn't lose again the rest of the regular season, earning the top AFC seed in a year in which they were expected to be rebuilding.
Score: New England 25, Buffalo 24
Brady's line: 39-of-53, 378 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 97.8 rating
With Tom Brady playing his first regular season game after tearing his ACL in 2008, many fans were eager to see if Brady was still the same guy he was before the injury.
He was. And he proved it not once, but twice.
The Brady-led Patriots offense had been sluggish all game, managing only 13 points by the time it took the field with a 24-13 deficit and 5:32 to play.
What followed was nothing short of miraculous in the football sense. Brady went 9-of-11 and capped off an 81-yard drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ben Watson with 2:06 remaining. After Leodis McKelvin fumbled the kickoff return, Brady went to work again, needing only three plays to go 31 yards and cash in with a 16-yard scoring strike to Watson for the win.
It was an unbelievable a finish to a game as Brady has pulled off, and it was an example of his unparalleled ability to be brilliant in the biggest moments. He went 12-of-14 over the two drives, and proved that his nerves didn't lose anything during his year away.
Score: New England 59, Tennessee 0
Brady's line: 29-of-34, 380 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs, 152.8 rating
The afternoon of Oct. 18 was a gross one in New England. A weird weather pattern had caused snow and sleet to hit the Northeast earlier than usual, and just in time for the Patriots' game against the Titans.
The conditions weren't good for anything, but according to Tom Brady, they were perfect for football.
He certainly played as if they were. He threw the ball better than he had all year, hitting Randy Moss for two deep scores and a third on a goal line pass, while also connecting with Wes Welker for two touchdowns and Kevin Faulk for one.
He did most of his damage right away, as he had five touchdown passes, a career day for most quarterbacks, before halftime.
The offense had been held in check until that point, but it broke out in a big way that Sunday. Leading the way was Brady, who set numerous NFL records with his potency in the passing offense.
Somehow, Brady didn't have a perfect passer rating, but that was misleading. On a day that was supposed to be difficult for throwing the ball, regardless of what the stat says, Brady was flawless.
Score: New England 49, Miami 28
Brady's line: 21-of-25, 354 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INTs, 158.3 rating
The Patriots' offense in 2007 was the best, statistically, to play the game, and this game was its peak.
The Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss connection never looked more dangerous than it did that afternoon. Moss was out-jumping and out-running defenders for touchdowns, while Brady was never slowed, finishing with more scoring passes than incompletions. Like in the game against Tennessee in 2009, he had five touchdown passes by halftime.
The game showed just how unstoppable an offense could get with the best quarterback and receiver in the world playing together. Brady and Moss hooked up for scores numerous times in their two-plus seasons together, including four times in a game against Buffalo later that season, but that afternoon in Miami, the two made the game look easy.
As the stat line suggests, Brady wasn't just working well with Moss. He hit Wes Welker for two scores and Donte Stallworth and Kyle Brady for a touchdown apiece. He found a total of seven receivers on the day, and was successful throwing to all parts of the field.
It came against an opponent that ended up going 1-15, but that performance will be remembered by Patriots fans for a long time. It was a truly dominating show, with Brady putting on his best display of efficiency for the season. Or, actually, it was his second best...
Score: New England 31, Jacksonville 20
Brady's line: 26-of-28, 262 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 141.4 rating
Fresh off a regular season in which he smashed the NFL record books, Tom Brady found himself in a position in which it was impossible to top what he had already done.
And then he topped it.
Brady was mind-blowing on the night of Jan. 12. He was impossibly efficient. He was ruthlessly precise. He threw two incompletions. Total. In a playoff game. With the pressure of an undefeated season only intensifying.
In addition, the two incompletions were drops. He didn't make a single mistake all night.
He also went above-and-beyond his normal duty of taking the snap, dropping back and throwing. The resilient Jaguars were hanging tough and tied, 14-14, when New England had the ball near the goal line near the midpoint of the third quarter.
Brady took the snap from the 6-yard line, pretended it was going over his head, and then turned and fired a bullet to Welker right by the goal post for the go-ahead touchdown. It was a perfectly executed Statue of Liberty play, and it added "creativity" to the list of things Brady did well during the game.
In addition, he did it without having to rely on prolific wideout Randy Moss, who had only one catch thanks to double- and triple-coverage. Brady instead spent the night throwing to an eight-target cast, and he wasn't at all hindered.
Instead, he was just adding to his already established case as one of the best big-game quarterbacks of all time.
Score: Patriots 32, Panthers 29
Brady's line: 32-of-48, 354 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 100.5 rating
This was the game that defines Tom Brady in every sense.
On the biggest of big stages, Brady put his team on his back, setting a Super Bowl record for completions (since tied by Drew Brees). He had ice in his veins as he kept New England in what became a shootout, throwing what could have been the winning touchdown pass with 2:51 left to Mike Vrabel, and then leading the actual winning drive after Jake Delhomme led the Panthers back.
On the final six-play, 37-yard drive, the key play came when Brady, on 3rd-and-3 from the Carolina 40, fired a 17-yard bullet to Deion Branch to set up Adam Vinatieiri's field goal. There wasn't a large window for the throw, but Brady's pass hit Branch right in the numbers.
Brady had a rare miscue when he threw a second-half red-zone interception, but he rallied back and delivered when the Patriots needed him to. New England needed a quarterback who could rack up the yards and points that game, and Brady delivered every time.
He was named the Super Bowl MVP for his performance, and it was well-deserved. Given the quality of his performance and the setting he had to provide it in, he's never been better.