Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 12/17/12

NEW ORLEANS - NOVEMBER 30: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots warms ups against the New Orleans Saints at Louisana Superdome on November 30, 2009 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
The Patriots’ loss to the 49ers on Sunday night was a disappointment, for sure. But it’s also going to go down as one of the classic examples of what New England football is, and who Tom Brady is. People talk all the time about Brady’s ability as a quarterback, from his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to his two-minute drill to his winning record. But many times, Brady just looks normal on the field as the Patriots roll to win after win. He’ll end the day with 400 yards and three touchdowns, but he rarely does anything that makes people shake their heads with wonder, because he’s done it for so long with such efficiency. Brady is an excellent quarterback, but he’s never led the league in fireworks plays. That’s not what his team needs most days. But on Sunday night, Brady showed that the reason he doesn’t look like the hyped gunslingers throughout the rest of the league is by choice, not by default. He is a winner first, with heroics second — but he can tap the heroics if needed. Sunday night was the perfect encapsulation of who Brady is, and why he is a great quarterback. People will someday look back on the 2001-2005 seasons to see Brady as a game manager and a Super Bowl champ. They’ll roll tape from 2007 to see the offensive highlight reel. But to catch Brady at his best — to see what makes him stand out from all other quarterbacks, beyond the big numbers and beyond the usual excellence Brady provides — they’ll look at the second half of Sunday night’s game. The Patriots were stuck. There was only one way to get out of the 28-point hole they were in, and that was to attack relentlessly via the pass. Rarely does Brady get the chance to show singlehandedly what he can do with his arm. The Patriots want a team approach, and their success is pinned on getting the running game, defense and checkdown passes going as well as the offensive fireworks. They won’t sacrifice balance just so Brady can have a line similar to that of Drew Brees or Joe Flacco (first-half Flacco, that is). But on Sunday night, the Patriots needed Brady to be cliché Brady, and he did it. Brady threw 65 passes on Sunday night, completing 36 of them for 443 yards. He had one passing touchdown but set up three rushing scores, one by himself. He fed Brandon Lloyd for 190 yards, Aaron Hernandez for 92 and Wes Welker for 56. And he did it all through huge, precise passes that zipped into gaps or soared downfield. He buckled down and made it happen. Brady looked like the prototypical dream NFL quarterback in the second half on Sunday night, coming to the line knowing he needed to throw every time and making his arm do the work. Even his two interceptions were on beautiful passes (can we have a tally for how many of Brady’s career interceptions come from receiver deflections, please?). While Brady and the Patriots generally live on the well-executed offense, where Brady reads the defense and mixes runs and throws, in Sunday’s second half they lived just on his arm, and he made it work — against an exceptional defense. While Sunday night’s loss — and Brady and Co. eventually running out of gas — is a bitter turnout for the Patriots, what Brady did should provide some solace going into the twilight of the season. Of everything the Patriots need, a reconfirmation of Brady’s greatness shouldn’t be high on the list. But it is, especially after New England came up short in its two latest Super Bowls, and especially after the Patriots have had such a hard time closing out games in recent years. Is Brady just great at running the game, or can he be the Madden-style quarterback he’s vaunted to be? When the defense can’t hold on and the team has to live on Brady’s arm, can the Patriots trust the guy who is supposed to be head and shoulders above the rest of the team in skill, ability and get-it-done? Brady showed Sunday night what the Patriots will have to have if they want to win out this year. While it’s charming that the team has a nice running attack and that the secondary isn’t quite as embarrassing anymore, the playoffs will not be kind. The balanced attack that carried the team through the season will come up short in some ways, and the Patriots will need a little extra to push them over the top. Brady is that extra. He’s supposed to be why the Patriots can’t ever be counted out, and he needs to turn in minutes like he did in the second half on Sunday for New England to accomplish its goals this year. He was aggressive in his play-calling, quarterback rushes and through the air, and that’s what made the difference. Perhaps the best part of Brady’s performance was how he flipped the switch when he started to dominate. He and the team were horrible throughout the first half, and into the first drive of the second half. It was a game of bad luck and worse execution — with no chance at momentum when the entire team failed to do its job over and over. Brady could be seen roaming the sidelines, chewing out players and cursing out poor performances. But in the second half, when he grabbed the ball and started using it in ways he hasn’t all season, he was in a pure rage. He commanded his teammates to get to the line. He screamed at the referees. He told the players what was expected. Calm and cool Brady, who had been campaigning all game for this team to be what it should have been, said enough was enough — and he pushed not only his teammates to play better, but also himself. Rather than just exhorting the team, Brady started to play better. The abandon with which Brady threw his passes in the second half on Sunday hasn’t been seen in Foxboro for some time. The Patriots haven’t had much of a long game in recent years, and they’re not as comfortable when they’re forced to produce huge offensive sets late in games. That’s what led to the playoff failures in recent years — a team letdown, of course, but also Brady failing to be as Brady as he could have been. That stopped Sunday. Brady found the other gear he needs to have if the Patriots are going to overcome serious setbacks. He found the anger that has brewed after horrible losses, and he found it in time to take it on his own shoulders and put up a second-half performance that should do well for this team as it enters its most trying stretch. The Patriots have been improving this season, and the coaching staff has plenty of players performing above their ability. But the likes of a shaky secondary or a young running game aren’t going to win the Super Bowl. Brady is. And Brady found out Sunday night what happens when he stops waiting for the rest of the team to come along and just takes care of games the way he can. It may not be the game plan every week, but when needed, Brady can do it. That’s something to get fired up about.
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