The Patriots’ 30-23 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday was the latest example.
Brady’s stat line wasn’t necessarily off the charts — 34-of-54 for 355 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions — but the greatness was reflected in how the Patriots approached the game: They voluntarily made themselves one-dimensional by forgoing the traditional running game and putting the game in Brady’s hands.
Short-handed and pretty much out-manned along the offensive line and at running back while facing a powerful Jets front seven, the Patriots employed a game plan that somewhat resembled their unforgettable Monday Night Football 31-7 win at Minnesota on Oct. 30, 2006.
On that day, the Patriots threw 43 times and rushed 15 times, with the idea that they didn’t want to run at the Minnesota Vikings‘ top-rated defense that had stout players led by defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. As a result, it was Air Brady.
Yesterday, it was 54 pass attempts and just nine rushes, which is how Brady ended up the team’s leading passer and rusher for the first time in his career (he joked that he should enjoy it because it probably wouldn’t happen again, as three of the rushes were scrambles). The differential was so extreme that when the Patriots were trying to run out the clock, they did so by throwing the ball.
“It’s very rare,” acknowledged receiver Brandon LaFell. “But it’s Tom.”
In all, the Patriots dropped back to pass on 90.9 percent of their offensive plays, which is the highest percentage by any team in the past 10 seasons, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information.
It’s hard to win with that type of approach, but Brady makes it look easy at times. Consider that over the past 10 seasons, the Patriots are 4-0 when at least 80 percent of their plays are dropbacks, while all other teams are 3-109 in that time.
This is one reason some Jets defenders were talking about Brady with Hall of Fame reverence.
“I got to play against a legend,” said Jets safety Dion Bailey, who marveled at Brady’s “anticipation and knowing where guys are going to be.”
“It’s frustrating,” outside linebacker Calvin Pace said. “That’s why, one day, that guy will be in Canton.”
Brady didn’t get much help from his pass-catchers, as the Patriots totaled six drops, tied for the most by the team over the past 10 seasons. There were times when he didn’t help himself, as he misfired to open targets. But when critical plays were needed, especially in the fourth quarter, Brady delivered, as he so often has over his career.
Arguably no play was more important than Brady’s 27-yard strike to receiver Julian Edelman over the middle on third-and-17 with 10:46 remaining. The Patriots trailed 20-16 at the time but went on to score on that drive (8-yard pass to Danny Amendola on third-and-6) before pulling away with a touchdown on their ensuing march.
What stood out to Brady about the third-and-17 play was how Edelman ran full speed at the safety to get him to turn his hips, then he broke across the middle. Brady read Edelman perfectly before delivering a laser in his direction.
“That was the back-breaker,” Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie said of the play on which New York was in zone coverage.
Brady said it wasn’t exactly the way the play was supposed to unfold, which was a theme of the game.
“You just keep trying to churn your way through,” he said, noting that some plays were being installed at the team’s 11 a.m. pregame meeting because of all the moving parts due to injuries (the Patriots dressed just 18 healthy players on offense). “We made some plays we needed to in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t exactly like we drew them up, but it was good that we made it happen when we needed to.”
One of the notable changes for the Patriots in the fourth quarter was success out of empty formations. Brady attempted 21 passes overall and 12 of his 17 fourth-quarter passes from empty formations (no players in the backfield).
In the final quarter, Brady was 10-of-12 for 109 yards with one touchdown out of empty formations (11 snaps came out of the four-receiver, one-tight end package). In the first three quarters, he was 5-of-9 for 45 yards, with no touchdowns and two sacks.
When the Patriots go empty, it further illustrates that the ball is in Brady’s hands — and so is the fate of the team, for better or worse.
Usually, it’s for the better.
“Just the operation of the offense, how he can get us in and out of plays and just the total machine he creates on offense …” Amendola said with his voice trailing off. “He’s really good at it.”
One of the best ever.