Ian O’ConnorESPN Senior Writer
DENVER — History says Tom Brady wanted this one against the Denver Broncos badly, even if he’s not wired to make such admissions publicly. But long before he applied two layers of makeup to his miserable Mile High record, Brady won something significant just by showing up Sunday night.
The New England Patriots‘ 41-16 rout of the Broncos wasn’t merely notable as Brady’s record-setting 86th road victory, breaking a tie with Peyton Manning in Peyton’s place. This was the team’s first game since the Jimmy Garoppolo trade to the 49ers, which meant it was the first game of the rest of Brady’s life. At 40 years old, he held off a talented 20-something with designs on his job and cleared a path toward the dream of retiring as a one-uniform icon.
“I tend to think Tommy’s probably got another two years now as a starter, at least, even if the Patriots draft another quarterback,” Brady’s father, Tom Sr., said Sunday by phone. “Tommy says he wants to play until he’s 45, but Bill Belichick, he makes decisions he deems are best for the team. If he thinks it’s best for the team to find a replacement when Tommy’s 42 or 43 years old, he’ll do that.”
Yes, Belichick most certainly will. Things change quickly in sports, especially in the injury-stricken NFL. Only after Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett were packaged up and shipped out of town did Brady Sr. grow more optimistic about his son’s chances to author the final career chapter he covets and deserves.
“It’s trending in the right direction,” Brady Sr. said. “Tommy leads the league in passing, and he’s holding up his end of the bargain. The stars are aligned for it to happen.”
Nothing altered that alignment Sunday night, even if Mile High had served as Brady’s last haunted house. He showed up with a 3-7 record in Denver, including 0-3 in the playoffs. He was 10-0 in postseason play when the Broncos hosted him and the Pats in a divisional-round game in January 2006, and left town with a 10-1 record. Over the years — away and at home, regular season and in the playoffs — Brady lost to Denver quarterbacks the likes of Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Kyle Orton, Brock Osweiler and Manning.
Brady wasn’t losing to Osweiler this time, certainly not when Patriots special teams contributed a 103-yard kickoff return, a blocked punt and a recovery of a fumbled punt. Brady completed 25 of 34 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns in helping the Patriots to their fifth consecutive victory and in handing the sorry-looking Broncos their fifth consecutive loss.
The Patriots are 7-2 in an AFC East that is starting to disintegrate on cue. New England will win its 15th division title in 17 years, and take its shot at a sixth Super Bowl title with an ageless quarterback who seems to be the sport’s only superstar who has figured out how to stay on the field.
But win, lose or draw in the postseason tournament, Brady has already padded his legacy. He has already beaten a previously unbeaten opponent: Belichick’s system of roster management. As upsets go, this might’ve been the Patriots’ biggest since they shocked the world, and the St. Louis Rams, in the Super Bowl that started it all.
Brady was supposed to be out of New England by now, at least judging by the realities and perceptions defining the 2014 draft. All of Brady’s vital numbers plunged in 2013 — touchdowns, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, quarterback rating, you name it, and the Patriots weren’t sure this decline was merely a result of being without Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski. So despite the fact they had more conspicuous holes to fill, the Patriots drafted Garoppolo in the second round the next year, earlier than the previous six QBs they had drafted since Brady became a starter in 2001. Belichick picked Garoppolo at No. 62, or 137 spots earlier than he’d picked Brady in 2000.
“The situation we have at quarterback, we felt like as an organization that we needed to address that to some degree in the future,” Belichick said at the time. “You’re better off being early rather than late at that position.”
Belichick also said this after drafting Garoppolo: “We know what Tom’s age and contract situation is.”
At 36 years old, Brady was signed through 2017. Garoppolo? He would be signed through 2017 as well.
It was a four-year race right from the start. Garoppolo was a couple of inches shorter than Brady, but he had youth and athleticism on his side, not to mention a possible edge in Hollywood-level looks. Jimmy G grew up idolizing Brady. His coach at Eastern Illinois, Dino Babers, said the kid had the quickest release since Dan Marino.
At Michigan, Lloyd Carr brought in a high school hotshot named Drew Henson to take Brady’s job. It wasn’t a stretch to think Brady saw Garoppolo as Belichick’s Henson. The incumbent responded with the predictable fury, winning two Super Bowls in three years and swatting away a Deflategate suspension as if it were an annoying horsefly. His touchdowns, completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and quarterback rating went up, and his interceptions went down. Brady kept Garoppolo on the bench until a couple of weeks ago, when Belichick moved a player his QB essentially forced him to move.
Last spring, when asked in a phone interview if he was annoyed Garoppolo was still on the roster, Brady said: “When you’re a member of a team sport, the best guy plays. So I always want to make sure I’m the best guy. … In high school, college, professionally, I think the greater the competition, the more that it really allows me to dig deep and bring the best out of me.”
Truth was, Brady’s family and friends weren’t sure he’d win this competition. Not the competition with Garoppolo, but with the Belichick system that has long been unforgiving to prominent players who are in decline and/or earning a few dollars more than their value (by Belichick’s estimation) against the salary cap. Even Brady’s father thought his son might be the next member of an outbound conga line of made men that included Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Deion Branch, Richard Seymour, Wes Welker and Logan Mankins.
More than once, Brady Sr. had said publicly he expected his son to someday fall to the Patriot Way. Last summer, Brady Sr. was asked if he thought the record fifth Super Bowl ring might secure a happy ending after all.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I would hope he would have a happy ending, but very few people go out the way they want to go out. In Tommy’s particular case, I think he wants to play another four to five years. I think it’s up to Bill to determine whether Tommy is the horse he wants to bet on.
“Everybody seems to believe that 40 years old is a cliff that, once you reach it, you fall off it. I don’t think Bill’s ever had an athlete as dedicated to being a complete football player as he has had with Tommy because of Tommy’s wholesale commitment, 365 days a year, to nutrition, to conditioning, to actively becoming a better performer. … As such, I don’t think that they’re necessarily prepared for what Tommy is going to be capable of at age 43, 44 or 45.”
Three months later, Belichick proved he was prepared for Brady’s greatness to extend into his 40s. He dealt Garoppolo to Brady’s hometown team of San Francisco, eliminating the possibility that Jimmy G would play Steve Young to Tommy B’s Joe Montana.
Sunday afternoon, while he watched his wife Galynn hit golf balls, Brady Sr. was reminded of his grim forecasts of the past. He agreed that the chances of his son finishing his career as a Patriot “are much better now than they were two or three years ago.” He said that he didn’t see “a competition between Tommy and Bill and competing timetables,” and that his son had learned at Michigan to put his head down and compete primarily against himself.
The quarterback knows he has the best of both worlds in Foxborough, where his relationship with Belichick is transactional (you do for me, I do for you) and his relationship with owner Robert Kraft is transformational (I’m fully invested in your well-being and growth). All three men have greatly benefited from the wild twists of fate that brought them together.
It was fitting Sunday night that the man Brady replaced, Drew Bledsoe, was in the house to take in the game. There was a lot of this-is-your-life stuff going around the visitors side, as Belichick tied Tom Landry for third all time on the victories list (270), and as Brady set the road wins record and started perhaps the last stage of a career that was launched — most unfortunately — by a serious Bledsoe injury.
Brady reconnected with his former tight end, Martellus Bennett, and threw touchdown passes to three different receivers. Gronkowski swore he caught a fourth — the officials decreed it incomplete — and then swore his quarterback has maintained the same work ethic and attention to detail since the day the tight end arrived in 2010.
“Literally,” Gronk said, “not one thing has changed since I’ve been here.”
Most notably Brady’s affection for his craft. In a nod to the Patriots’ struggles at Mile High, Brady called this “a really good night for us.” In the end, given the big-picture implications, it was an even better night for him.
“I do really love the game,” he said, “and I love practicing and playing it and I love being with my teammates and working hard. It is fun for me, and I plan on doing it for a long time.”
In the same uniform, too. Nobody — not even a franchise quarterback — was supposed to outmaneuver and outlast the Bill Belichick machine. Except that Tom Brady just did.