They met in the chilly Massachusetts air, one slapping the other on the side of his helmet, sharing a smile at midfield. One won, one lost, but there’s a good chance they knew even then: Their paths might just cross again, and the roads they walk are reflections of two major stories and many more tales interwoven in a 49ers-Patriots Super Bowl.
Colin Kaepernick and Tom Brady played completely different games when they faced off on December 16 at Gillette Stadium. Brady, the perennial Most Valuable Player candidate, was hardly in form. After a stellar seven-game stretch in which he threw just one interception to 19 touchdowns, the Niners unraveled Brady, picking him off twice. Kaepernick, though, was the image of a calm and collected quarterback, throwing four TDs against one pick and going 14-25 on pass attempts. He withstood the four straight TD drives by Brady and his bunch, leading his San Francisco club to a victory that would help ensure they would earn a first-round bye. The rookie took down the expert in his own kingdom, stabilizing his place in the red and gold realm.
But what was really fascinating about the game was the two teams matching period. There’s no doubt the National Football League purposely scheduled that highlight Sunday night prime time match up. They knew before the 2012 season even started that it would be a clash of one of the best offenses and one of the best defenses in football. It would be two teams in the thick of postseason seeding after nearly facing off in the annual do-or-die game a year before. Why not schedule the potential Super Bowl teams a few weeks before playoffs began? It was a no-brainer. And it worked: the intrigue the result created reached far and wide and whispered predictions of a potential 49ers-Patriots rematch at Super Bowl XLVII.
The match up certainly would mean a great deal to number 12. Brady grew up in boyhood wonder of the San Francisco 49ers. He witnessed The Catch and idolized the only Quarterback in history perhaps better than him. Growing up in San Mateo, California, he made sure he watched the Niners play, and took to the game, like Joe Montana, as a Quarterback.
But the New England Patriots and the 49ers at the Superdome does more than create a man vs. favorite team duel; it spawns storylines about the careers of Brady and Kaepernick. One is a player that has experienced his days while one has yet to blossom.
Brady knows this: He’s aware his career has a few more years, at best. He could eclipse Montana in the coming weeks to become the winningest playoff Quarterback in history, but the small window still rests on him making one last run to get his 17th playoff win. And this means so much more because of the Montana-Brady discussions. Brady’s best statistical years have come in the last few seasons, with both his NFL MVP awards bestowed upon him after his Super Bowl titles. He boasted some of the best seasons ever in 2007 and 2010, posting a 50-8 and a 36-4 TD-to-interception line in 2007 and 2010 respectively, while setting an NFL record with 358 consecutive passes without an interception in 2010-11. Brady has led the best offense in football over the last few seasons, epitomizing the overhaul in the NFL from hard-nose running and defense to burn out the clock, to quick passing and effortless 30-plus point games. Yet, he still can’t overcome Montana. Statistically, Brady is even better than The Comeback Kid. He’s superior to Montana in career record (136-39 to 117-47); completions (3798 to 3409); completion percentage (63.7 to 63.2); passing yards (44,806 to 40,551); TDs (334 to 273) and more.
But the number most people pine on, Montana outshines Brady there: 4-0 in Super Bowls. He’s the absolute perfect, never being defeated in the biggest games. Brady, on the other hand, lost his last two Super Bowls, coming just seconds shy of becoming 5-0 in the big dances, falling against the New York Giants in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI – ironically one of greatest rivals of his home team.
Ascending age still has Brady. He’s 35, fresh off two Super Bowl defeats, and has to reengage the entire procedure from last year to have an opportunity to win three more games in the next month. It’s easy if you’re a 24-year old QB with at least another decade left in his career and can ride the wave of change. The margin for error is much minuter the decade later, though. Each season lost without a ring past the big 30 is a harsh pang. Brady’s team is young, but he, the most essential cog to New England, despite still playing like a prime QB, will begin to dip soon. He can’t afford to fail many more times if he wants to win the elusive ring number four.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, is just beginning. He’s only 25, just two years removed from his second-round selection by the Niners in the 2011 NFL Draft. He recently cemented himself into the role of starting Quarterback of the 49ers, and has another decade or more to go, barring misfortune. He’s already proven that he has the skills to be a successful Quarterback in the NFL. Arm, accuracy, efficient throwing, awareness in the pocket – he has all the tools Brady has, plus the legs to sprint for a first down. He still has room to develop, of course, but he’s on a good track at the age of quarter of a century. Many rookie QBs have the physical tools, but fall flat on the more important weapons in the passer’s arsenal, such as pocket awareness; not Colin. Even better for him and the NFL, Kaepernick has the competition for the future, much like Brady had when he started out his pro career. Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson – all three of these QBs should duel with Kaepernick in the future, spurring him on to improve himself and creating ravishing rivalries.
The closer link between the man from Milwaukee and Brady are their rises to QB. They have similarities that spark “ooooh’s.” Both took over as a young, untested QB while their teams already possessed a dominating, physical defense. Neither Kaepernick nor Brady were rated incredibly high in their draft classes – Brady particularly since he was the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Both were successful in college, but were not seen as the top option when they started their NFL careers. But just as Brady took over Drew Bledsoe’s starting QB role when his team needed a pocket leader, and ran with the job even when star Bledsoe was healthy again, Kaepernick did the same with Alex Smith. Smith drove the 49ers to their first winning season since 2002, dazzling as a star QB. One concussion in 2012 and the Niners needed a pocket leader to step up while Smith recovered. And, swish, another run.
For both these teams, a Super Bowl meeting would be a conclusion to unresolved feelings from their December showdown at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots’ premier offense was stumped for 35 minutes, they played sloppy, and were denied a legendary comeback; the 49ers were slapped up on defense in the second half. Whether or not they say it, both clubs wouldn’t mind meeting up in the playoffs to settle their embarrassment. The Pats and Niners were a carefully-caught punt away from meeting in last year’s Super Bowl, and have epitomized two different schools of the NFL the last two seasons: a shift to offense with New England, and old school hard play defense with San Francisco.
It’s a long way for such a Super Bowl contest to happen. Assuming major Divisional Round upsets don’t occur, the Patriots will go on the road to Mile High and battle the best team in the NFL, the Denver Broncos, a team that has what Belichick wants for his club: everything – running, offense, defense. On the NFC side, just to get to New Orleans the 49ers have to overcome their back-to-back less-than-Super Bowl-level performances against the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals in their last two games, and win two matches in a playoff conference with four other Super Bowl-level teams. Both San Fran and New England being number two seeds give them the time to prepare and reorganize their gears for the tough playoff battles to come, but great fortune along with strength will take them to a February showdown.
But if that time comes, if these two teams, these two men, meet at midfield in February – whether this February or another in the future – they’ll probably both know: At midfield, meeting for a hug to congratulate one and console the other, they’ll bring many stories, a multitude of possibilities, and numerous reflections for the NFL – all of which matter to each other.