Tom Brady threw three second-half interceptions in Tampa Bay’s 31-26 NFC championship game victory over Green Bay. It was enough of a statistical blemish for critics to point to his diminished skills and poor play.
No quarterback ever wants to throw a pick, but the circumstances around two of them, and how they fit into Brady’s current approach to the game (uber aggressive) says more about winning games in today’s offense-first NFL as anything else.
The way a boxer needs to open himself up to be hit in order to hit, Brady’s philosophy these days seems to be to risk the deep interception in an effort to maximize every possession in pursuit of points. You can’t jab your way to the Super Bowl. Certainly not anymore. You’ve got to swing. And at 43, that means some imperfect haymakers.
Brady knows the days of dinking, dunking and leaning on Bill Belichick’s defense are over. He won five AFC championship games and three Super Bowls in New England when the Patriots scored 24 points or fewer. In two of his Super Bowl victories, the offense scored just one touchdown.
These days, that’ll get you beat, whether it is on the road against presumptive MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers or in a couple weeks against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City in Super Bowl LV.
You need 30 or 40-plus points to win games. Maybe more.
The second of Brady’s three interceptions was undeniably a bad one – a high pass to Mike Evans that ended a drive that had reached field-goal range.
The other two, however, stemmed from a strategy where when pressured, and lacking an obvious target, Brady heaved it deep rather than go for a safer outlet or throw it safely out of bounds. This was especially true on third down, where in the first half he completed six passes for an average gain of 23.5 yards. That included on multiple occasions chucking up what is essentially a 33-33-33 ball (equal opportunity catch, pick or incomplete). If it fell to the ground, then Tampa would punt. If it was picked, barring a big return, then it was something akin to a punt and the Bucs would live with it.
And if it was caught … it could change the game.
That’s what happened on a 52-yard, third-down bomb that Chris Godwin brilliantly hauled in. One play later Leonard Fournette spun in for a touchdown.
That’s the plus.
The negative were two deep passes that were picked off. Both, however, resulted in plus-30-yard swings of field position for the Buccaneers. They were pseudo punts.
Tampa’s two actual punts in the game delivered plus-36 and plus-34 yards. And if Brady had taken sacks, instead of the interceptions, it could have shifted further.
Again, no one wants to throw an interception, but turning it over way downfield isn’t the same as a strip sack or a pick six. It’s clear they’ll take this trade off.
Brady’s when-in-doubt, toss-it-deep mindset kept the second touchdown drive alive. It was also manifested in lots of deep routes and, in the waning seconds of the first half, the quarterback talking coach Bruce Arians into going for it on fourth-and-4 from the Green Bay 45. They did, converted and one play later Brady hit Scotty Miller for a 39-yard touchdown with one second left on the clock.
Tampa doesn’t win without all of that.
Brady is, of course, headed to his 10th Super Bowl. No other player has been to more than six and no quarterback to more than five. He is the NFL’s greatest winner but he has never been its most talented player.
Despite most acknowledging the greatness of the achievement, he’s still viewed through the prism of the common quarterback, like there isn’t a method to the madness. You’d think by now, he’d earn that. He’s here to win championships. That’s it.
The guy who used to do it through patience and precision, who is arguably the smartest, or at least most experienced, quarterback ever, didn’t just decide to stupidly force balls all over the field for no reason. This is the same guy, but with a new game plan. The inevitable interception is collateral damage. It’s the only way at this point.
There was one additional notable pass Brady threw Sunday. With 4:48 remaining in the game, Tampa led 28-23. It was third-and-8 from the Green Bay 28-yard line. A 46-yard field goal would make it an 8-point game. Brady’s chief concern was to not lose any yards and make the field goal more difficult.
When Green Bay’s defense instantaneously made a quick slant to Godwin, Brady bailed on the play immediately. He essentially spiked the ball for an incompletion. He didn’t try to make a play. In this scenario, risk was to be avoided.
Tampa made the field goal, extending the lead and sending the Packers analytics into confusion.
It was the smart play. The winning play. So were the long passes attached to a prayer.
Part-time gunslinger is a new look for Brady, but it’s the only look that can win. He wasn’t beating Green Bay if he wasn’t willing to gamble when appropriate, just as he isn’t beating Kansas City with 13 points in a couple weeks.
If that means there will be a downfield interception or two, especially on third down, then so be it.
Stat sheets are for losers.
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