In some movie credits, there's a special spot reserved for an actor who does not have top billing in the film, but was a bona fide star at one time. It's basically a respectful gesture from the producers, acknowledging a legend's limited contribution to the show. Last week, for the first time in recent memory, Tom Brady was viewed in this light. Heading into the Broncos-Patriots divisional-round bout, Tim Tebow had top billing. But as the game played out, there was one undeniable star of the show: Mr. Brady.
Brady was beyond sensational in the Patriots' 45-10 statement win, in total command from the first snap of the game. Brady has become more and more like Peyton Manning at the line of scrimmage, controlling the game, making sure the Pats never run a bad play. This ability to dictate the action on the field is spectacular and his ability to execute is even better.
Leading up to the game, the Broncos believed they could pressure Brady inside, forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly and disrupting the Pats' offensive flow better than they did one month ago. In reviewing film from the first game, Broncos coaches felt they had great success each time they pressured Brady (besides the first third down of the game, when Aaron Hernandez made a big play). But the minute this game started, Brady had the Broncos on their heels, not throwing a single incompletion in his first two drives and building a 14-0 lead. For most of the 2012 season, the Patriots offense has started slow, but not Saturday night -- they started fast, played fast and built a lead fast.
Having covered many Patriot games, I can tell from the body language how Brady will perform. There are times where you can see the weight of responsibility wearing him down, affecting his overall confidence -- particularly when he may not have complete faith in the game plan, or some of the players around him. However, when Brady has that look, he's extremely difficult to beat. He won't settle for anything less than a Patriots win. Saturday night, he had that look. Even after an early interception, Brady's confidence never wavered. He immediately bounced back to make more great throws, more great calls and score more points.
What makes Brady and the Pats so dangerous is their ability to be game plan-specific. If the matchups favor the Patriots, they are very hard to beat. If opponents can win some of the matchups, they will create a lull in the Patriots' offensive attack. But with two multi-dimensional tight ends, New England can attack the middle of the field, exploiting safeties with marginal coverage ability. Putting a corner on Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez isn't the answer either, as both are too physical for smaller men to handle. And they're too quick for a linebacker to cover. With these two players on the field at all times, Brady holds all the pre-snap cards. He can flex them out, forcing the defense to declare man or zone. If opponents choose to play split safety coverage, they're writing their own death certificate, as both tight ends can kill you down the middle. When Brady comes to the line, he instantly knows where to attack. It's like giving a Rhodes Scholar the test questions before he takes the exam. Brady will always ace this test.
It is no wonder that Brady only faced six third downs the entire game -- with just two in the second half. Brady was playing Canadian Football (piling up yardage on first- and second-down). You can't stop the Pats' offense if you can't force them into possession downs.
With Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees dropping out of the tournament over the weekend, Brady and Eli Manning are the brightest stars left in a quarterback-obsessed league. Can Ravens QB Joe Flacco steal Brady's thunder next Sunday? Doubtful. The way Mr. Brady is playing right now, it'll be nearly impossible to strip him of top billing. Brady does not like playing second fiddle to anyone.
Things I loved
» I loved that Giants quarterback Eli Manning has proven his true worth. Back in August, Manning raised more than a few eyebrows when he called himself an elite quarterback. But this season, he's gone out and proven exactly that. Sunday, he outplayed this season's likely MVP candidate, making all the throws, racking up three touchdowns and sending the mighty Packers to an early exit. It's crazy to think that the Giants might not have even made the playoffs had the Cowboys completed a pass at the end of their first game against New York; or if the 'Boys executed a field goal in the Cardinals game. But the Giants made the dance, took advantage of their situation and are suddenly a team no one wants to play.
» I love that the 49ers win every close game, thanks to being one of the toughest-minded teams in the league. Even though this was their first playoff appearance in nine years, the 49ers never flinched when the Saints came from behind to take the lead. Quarterback Alex Smith played incredible down the stretch and tight end Vernon Davis proved to be the ultimate mismatch player everyone expects him to be. The Niners never stop competing. Unless a team can match their intensity and competitiveness, they will be hard to beat.
» I love that the Ravens can gain just 227 yards, convert only 11 first downs and go 4-for-16 on third down -- and still win the game. When a team can win with such a lackluster offensive effort, it's tough-minded, opportunistic and competitive. The Ravens' past two opponents (Cincinnati and Houston) have looked like the better team, but both times the Ravens found a way to win. It might not look pretty, but a win's a win in this tournament.
Things I hated
» I hated how the Saints played defense against the 49ers. New Orleans had to stop two players in the 49ers offense: running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis. Yet both players produced in a major way. I really, really hate when a team doesn't force its opponent's other players to win the game. It's a really bad feeling when you lose a playoff game, but it feels even worse when you don't even present a challenge for the opposing stars.
» I hated watching Green Bay's defense miss tackle after tackle, and give up plays down the field. The Packers' D has been a liability all season. When the offense doesn't carry the team, forcing the Pack to play from behind, the defense isn't good enough to pick up the slack. Their inability to pressure the passer was clear on Sunday. I hate when a team has Pro Bowl players that never play like Pro Bowl players in the big game. Neither B.J. Raji nor Clay Matthews made an impact on the game.
» I hated watching the Broncos manage the end of the first half, knowing they were getting the ball back to start the second half. A 21-7 deficit at halftime would have been tough to overcome, but certainly not impossible. By not running the clock, though, the Broncos punted twice in the final three minutes and allowed the Patriots to build a 28-point lead, essentially ending the game.
Things on my mind
» The Saints can talk all they want about not being a dome team, but the proof is in the results. They just are not the same team outside the comforts of the Superdome. New Orleans must address this problem in the offseason.
» The Patriots' defense has taken a beating all season, but it looked spectacular on Saturday night, especially on the defensive front. New England looked strong, pushing the Broncos' offensive line around.
» The Broncos drafted two safeties in the first four rounds this past draft: Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. Unfortunately, they probably need to draft two more, as both are suspect in space and really limited in coverage.
» I really hate when a team is trying to start a drive with limited time and the kickoff returner uses up valuable time by taking the ball out of the end zone only to end up inside the 20. Those precious seconds are more important than yards.
» The Packers desperately need an influx of young talent on defense. Look for them to spend all their draft picks on that side of the ball, especially in the defensive line. Cullen Jenkins proved to be more of a loss than anyone wants to admit.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi