You can never kill the great villains. Every time you think they’re dead, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger just spring back to life. When you’ve got Hannibal Lecter locked in a cage and you think it’s over, all of a sudden he’s ripping out your throat.
Tom Brady never should have been a villain. He should be a hero, the NFL equivalent of Jay-Z, an American Dream narrative to cherish, the story of a man who made himself from nothing and rose through the ranks to glory.
He’s competitive, humble and selfless. He’s also really good at football.
Winning Super Bowls and having a Brazilian supermodel wife makes you easy to loathe though – Brady has to be the most envied athlete in America – no matter how wholesome your personality might be. People look for every reason to hate Brady but none are compelling. You can call him a cheat for Deflate Gate, but in doing so you’d just be shedding light on your own ignorance or shadow complexes.
The Wells Report was comical in its vague assertions (“more probable than not”) and a scientific consensus has formed that effectively exonerates Brady and the Patriots from any wrongdoing.
The Deflate Gate truthers have been limited to the NFL and those with weird personal grievances against Brady. Neither institution holds much weight.
And yet, Tom Brady is unquestionably a villain. The Patriots are the most hated team in the league and Bill Belichick, with his cold, condescending presence, is the game’s most easily despicable coach. By osmosis, as New England’s best player, Brady has become one of the sport’s great villains.
It’s unfair, but at the same it’s fitting. Because like all great villains, whenever you think Tom Brady is dead, that’s the precise moment where he becomes so frighteningly alive.
I watched the AFC Championship game in a hostel in Southern Patagonia, Argentina, with a group of Americans who had varying degrees of interest in the game. Two of them, guys from New York and Chicago, were watching the game out of obligation – they were American and the playoffs were on TV, so it goes. The other guy was from Colorado though, a die-hard Broncos fan who was sweating out every play as though the season depended on it – which, in his defence, it probably did.
Through three quarters, almost everything went Denver’s way. In an omen which proved to be decisive, Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point in approximately a million attempts, setting the game’s uneven tone early. Peyton Manning looked sharp in the first quarter, hardly vintage Peyton but solid enough to put points on the board. His two touchdowns, the second an absolute pearler, went to Owen Daniels, who spent the afternoon looking like the tight end from New England.
The Denver defence was ferocious in one of the most dominant displays on that side of the ball you’ll ever see. They were relentless, in Brady’s face all day, and eventually, inevitably, found their way into his head too. Managing to get into Tom Brady’s head is the final frontier for an NFL defence, and it’s one that the Broncos crossed, generating pressure all day without having to blitz. Von Miller and Demarcus Ware sentenced Sebastian Vollmer and the New England offensive line to years of therapy, and Denver’s stellar secondary remained almost watertight, creating coverage pressure on the quarterback all day long.
And yet, the Patriots stuck around. Manning faded as the game went on, coming unstuck by missing on a wide-open touchdown in the fourth quarter which would have put the Broncos up two scores. Still though, at 20-12 the game felt like it was over. The Patriots were unable to move the ball fluently all day and Denver’s defence was rising to every clutch moment. But the guy from Colorado never felt comfortable – with every stop of the Patriots, every big defensive stand, he just kept on repeating, “It’s never over while Tom Brady still has a chance to get the ball back.”
As a Giants fan, I understood what he meant. In both New York’s Super Bowl wins over New England, Brady got the ball back with almost no time left, having to drive the entire field, but never for a moment did I feel comfortable. And surely enough, in the first Super Bowl he was inches away from hitting Randy Moss for a monster, game-changing gain, and in the second he pulled off one of the handful of most ridiculous quarterbacking plays I’ve ever seen, evading pressure and nailing a fourth and 15 pass to keep the game alive.
But on Sunday I thought it was over. Denver’s secondary was too good and the disparity between their defensive line and New England’s offensive line was too great. Brady had been hit 20 times in the game – more than any other player had been hit in any game this season. He was battered and he looked rattled. Even if he is the greatest quarterback of all time, not even Tom Brady could pull this off. But then he did. And then he did again.
Brady’s fourth and ten throw to Rob Gronkowski was one of the all-time great Lazarus moments. In the blink of an eye the game was over and then it really, really wasn’t. And then he did it again on fourth and goal. Both plays felt surreal to the point of being unreal. It was as though they weren’t supposed to happen, that this wasn’t what the universe had planned. But in the NFL, Tom Brady stands taller than the universe. He moulded it to his will and turned the game on its head – twice.
If he’d converted the two-point conversion as well it would have been too much. Even the great villains have to die at the end of the film – you can only come back from the dead so many times.
Sunday’s AFC title game was one of the great playoff match-ups, replete with storylines. There was Denver’s legendary defensive performance, showing themselves to be perhaps the single most imposing unit in the NFL on either side of the ball, a line-up so powerful that they have to be given a shot against Carolina to pull off the upset no matter how long the odds look right now.
There was Peyton Manning coming full circle, and there were Gronkowski’s heroics, which played no small part in Brady’s comeback.
But even though his stats were terrible and he couldn’t do anything for the first 59 minutes of game-time, I’ll still remember this past Sunday for Tom Brady, for the fear he struck in an opposing fan, no matter how irrational it felt, and how it was proven to be justified.
After the final whistle sounded, everyone watching the match in the hostel remained in their seats, still trying to process the final minute. I congratulated the guy from Colorado on making the Super Bowl, which is what you do. He gave me a nervous nod and didn’t say anything – he, like everyone else in the room, was stunned.
We were all still thinking about Tom Brady.