I'm not talking about the younger Brett Favre who could take over a game on command and lead his Green Bay Packers to the end zone. I'm talking about the older, stubborn, mistake-prone Brett Favre who continually cost his team big games by trying to thread a needle from 20 yards away.
That may seem like a wild accusation. We are talking about Tom Brady after all. Through most of his time in the league, he's been the definition of "percentage quarterback." While the mainstream media kept hyping Peyton Manning's offensive explosiveness, Brady would methodically drive the field and lead his team to victory. It's safe to say that the New England "dynasty" of recent seasons (three Super Bowl victories in the last five years) is a tribute to the percentage style encouraged by head coach Bill Bellicheck, and to Brady's mastery of it.
Manning would get all the coverage...would win the MVP awards...and would get to do commercials for countless products. You still can't watch a football game without seeing Manning (or a little kid with Manning's head connected by computer graphics), shilling for something. You don't see Brady wearing his own jersey and a fake mustache. You don't see Brady yelling "DEE-CAFF" at a waitress. You don't see the head of Brady arguing with the heads of Derek Jeter or D. Wade during a game of stickball. Manning won endorsement contracts. Brady won championships!
Evidence from New England's most recent road playoff games show that Brady may have lost sight of the percentages. And that failing may have led to last year's playoff loss at Denver, as well as what should have been a playoff loss at San Diego. Even the most ardent Patriots fans have to admit New England was lucky to win last week. Bob Costas, Cris Collinsworth, and company devoted the first segment of their weekly HBO show to cataloguing all the San Diego errors that led to the Patriots victory. You probably watched the game. You know about the muffed punt, the fumble on the interception return (where just batting the ball down would have given the ball to San Diego on that fourth down play), the 15-yard personal foul penalty, the poorly run two-minute drill.
Here are Brady's key "percentage" stats in what should have been a loss:
*27-51 passing...53% completions with a whopping 24 incomplete passes
*3 interceptions...the most thrown by a QB in the playoffs this season
*4 of 17 on third down conversions...a woeful 24% success rate
That was in stark contrast to what Brady did the prior week at home against the New York Jets:
*22-34 passing...65% completions
*11 of 16 on third down conversions...a sparkling 69% success rate
You might be thinking that last week was an anomaly, and that Brady is still the master of the percentage game. He is most of the time. But, the key could possibly be that when THREATENED, the veteran Brady suddenly becomes the Brett Favre clone who thinks he can do anything. Unlike in his younger days, Brady loses sight of the percentages and tries to do the impossible in games where the Patriots are an underdog.
The stats from the lucky win in San Diego last week look a lot like the stats in last year's road playoff loss at Denver:
*20-36 passing...56% completions with 16 incomplete passes
*2 interceptions (on a day where the whole team had 5 turnovers)
*4 of 14 on third down conversions...a poor 27% success rate
That 2006 playoff performance came on the heels of a much sharper home effort against Jacksonville (no interceptions, 50% on third downs, but the same 55% completion rate). This year was a virtual replay of last year in terms of New England's playoff performances, and Brady's sudden abandonment of the percentage game as a road underdog.
When pressured, Brady threw a lot more incomplete passes, an unacceptable number of interceptions, and seemingly lost his ability to move the chains.
Sunday, Brady will once again be a road underdog. He may not be facing a team that's going to shoot itself in the foot a half dozen times in the second half!
I've been a fan of Brady since he replaced the extremely overrated Drew Bledsoe many years ago. One of my great frustrations as a stathead during the Patriots mini-dynasty of late was listening to the media completely misrepresent what was happening on the field. The clues to why New England was winning were impossible to miss if you read the key boxscore stats outlined above. The Patriots win over "unbeatable" St. Louis was supposedly some kind of monster fluke. No, the Patriots were much better at the things that win championships on both offense and defense. They were also better than the rest of the league at a composite of percentage stats in their subsequent Super Bowl seasons. Last year, Pittsburgh used the same model to win a title.
Because other teams are following the model, Brady may now be feeling pressure to lift himself to a higher level. That pressure has led to a virtual disintegration of the percentage style when New England is a road underdog.
In fact, it may have also played a role in New England's home loss to Indianapolis earlier this season. Let's not forget that the Colts won in New England 27-20 back on November 5th. Here are Brady's numbers in that game:
*20-35 passing...57% completions with 15 incomplete passes
*4 interceptions (his worst performance of the year)
*7 of 13 on third down conversions...a sharp 54% success rate
Here we have a mix. As a home favorite, Brady did a great job of moving the chains. But, he wasn't very sharp with his completion percentage. And, the interceptions were a DISASTER! The Patriots found themselves in a shootout with a playoff caliber team...and Brady started throwing Favre-like interceptions. It wasn't a total meltdown. It wasn't a road game either. But, it WAS a loss.
As you watch Sunday's AFC championship game between the Patriots and Colts, watch Brady very carefully in the pocket. If he's restrained, and content to move the chains, then the Patriots will be in good shape to advance to another Super Bowl. But, if he starts forcing passes where they don't belong, we're likely to see a third straight road playoff debacle in terms of the percentage game.
Denver took advantage and won easily. San Diego could have avoided any of several mistakes and won last week. Indianapolis advanced to this round with methodical wins over Kansas City and Baltimore. They're trying to use the percentage game in the playoffs for the first time ever. The percentage game trumps a Brett Favre meltdown!
It pains me to say it, because I've been saying the opposite with great success during the Manning/Brady rivalry: Indianapolis will win and cover if Brady follows his recent pattern. Manning has embraced the percentage approach in big games, just as Brady seems to have abandoned it.
This weekend's projected finals:
Colts 23, Patriots 16
Saints 27, Bears 24