Tom Brady made a number of great plays in one of the greatest games in NFL history Sunday night, but my favorite by far happened with 2:35 to go in the first half. The Patriots were already in dire straits, down 14 against the Falcons. Brady dropped back on 3rd and 6 and fired low into traffic near the first-down line … into the hands of the Falcons’ Robert Alford, who returned it 82 yards for a pick six. That was a straight-up gunslinger throw — reckless and inaccurate, yes, but trying so hard. The Patriots weren’t going to go down without a fight; Brady would desperately try to throw them out of trouble.
Brady ended up taking 67 dropbacks (on 62 passes and five sacks) — the third-highest total in NFL playoff history and the highest since Steve Young had 68 (on 65 passes and three sacks) in a losing effort against Green Bay in 1996. Even for Brady, 67 is a frenzy of passes, but the Patriots have built their playoff dynasty on Brady passing them out of tough spots.
The Patriots may never have faced longer odds in a Super Bowl than they did when down 25 in the third quarter last night, but they’ve followed the same formula of having Brady throw, throw and throw them out of trouble many times before. This was the third Super Bowl in which he had more than 50 dropbacks and his second double-digit comeback victory. Since 2001, only three non-Brady Super Bowls have seen a quarterback drop back at least 50 times.
Note that Brady has trailed at some point in all seven of his Super Bowl appearances and has won three of the five in which he had more than 40 dropbacks (all other quarterbacks have won three of 12 Super Bowls in which they had more than 40 dropbacks, and all three wins came on fewer than 45 dropbacks). The only other double-digit Super Bowl comeback since 2001 was by Drew Brees, who came back from a 10-point first-quarter deficit to win Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.
If Julian Edelman doesn’t make that miracle catch,1 today’s conversation might be a little different, though the Patriots have benefited and suffered from miracles before. Plus, Brady and the Patriots have been hard to put down in any game, not just Super Bowls. Brady has a 5-5 record in all playoff games where he has trailed by double digits — with all 5 wins coming in games he had to pass his way out of2:
Since the 2001 season, all other QBs have combined for 20 playoff games where they took 50 or more dropbacks and trailed by 10 points or more. They won only twice. The only other quarterback with more than two double-digit comebacks is Russell Wilson, who has won three of the six playoff games where he was down by 10 or more. Also notable on the chart above: Brady’s Super Bowl LI win was the second-largest playoff comeback since 2001, behind only Andrew Luck and the Colts’ 28-point comeback against the Chiefs in a 2014 Wild Card game.
It may not settle the issue, but when it comes to questions of Brady’s GOAT-ness — or even questions of his responsibility for the Patriots’ long-running dominance — it’s worth keeping in mind that he isn’t just the most successful postseason quarterback of this millennium, he’s also the most leaned-upon. Whether he was throwing daggers or throwing the occasional pick six, he has ultimately gotten the job done.