Despite earning a playoff bye for the ninth consecutive year, the 2018 New England Patriots don’t look as good as usual. Their 11-5 record is their worst since 2009 and 41-year old quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t played up to his 2015–2017 form. In part due to Brady’s relatively subpar play, many analysts expect New England’s stay in the postseason to be a short one.
However, these analysts couldn’t be more wrong. While the numbers haven’t been there, Tom Brady is still the same great quarterback he’s always been. Time is a flat circle, and Tom Brady is poised to repeat his playoff success from a season ago.
Tom Brady Poised For Another Playoff Hot Streak
Even though the 2017 Patriots lost the Super Bowl, one could easily make the case that the 2017 playoff run was the best postseason stretch of Tom Brady’s career. During those three games, Brady completed 64% of his passes for 1,132 yards, eight touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 108.6 passer rating. This capped off an MVP season where Brady completed 66.3% of his passes for 4,577 yards, 32 touchdowns, eight interceptions, and a 102.8 passer rating.
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine the 2018 version of Tom Brady matching those numbers. His final stat line, while still good, wasn’t as good as his MVP campaign. Playing in all 16 games, Brady completed 65.8% of his passes for 4,355 yards, 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 97.7 passer rating. At first glance, these stats make Brady look like a notably worse quarterback than he was a season ago. However, a deeper analysis shows that this version of Brady is more than capable of putting up another great postseason run.
History Repeating Itself
Nobody is denying that, on the whole, Brady’s 2017 was better than his 2018. That said, Brady actually finished 2018 on a higher note than his MVP season. Over his final five games of 2018, Brady completed 67.3% of his passes for 1,324 yards, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 100.9 passer rating. During the final five games of the 2017 season, Brady completed 61.3% of his passes for 1,203 yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions, and an 81.6 passer rating. Based on these numbers, Brady finished the season playing significantly better than last year.
The reason for Brady’s slip at the end of 2017 comes down to injury. The MVP quarterback suffered a minor Achilles injury late in New England’s 33-8 win over the Oakland Raiders. While said injury didn’t force him to miss any action, it clearly had an effect on his overall performance. However, with an extra week to rest his injury, Brady put together one of the finest postseasons of his career.
Brady underwent a similar situation this year when he suffered a knee injury in Week 10 against the Tennessee Titans. According to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, the knee injury is considered “manageable and something he can play through”, just like his Achilles injury last year. And, just like last year, this bothersome injury clearly had an effect on his overall performance. From Weeks 10-16, Brady completed 62.8% of his passes for 1,611 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 91.7 passer rating. Watching the film, Brady shied away from contact and often overshot his receivers when trying to avoid taking a hit.
However, we’re already seeing the bounce back. Brady’s injury reportedly takes six to eight weeks for full recovery, and we reached the end of that timeframe in Week 17 against the New York Jets. Like clockwork, a now-healthy Brady bounced back with one of the best games of his season. During the regular season finale, Brady completed 72.7% of his passes for 250 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. Yes, it came against a subpar Jets defense. However, Brady showcased mobility and a willingness to move around the pocket which hadn’t been on display in weeks.
Is MVP Brady Still In There?
We’ve established that Brady has a history of bouncing back from injuries like this, but now it’s worth addressing whether Brady still has the ability to play to his old form. Father Time is undefeated, after all, and 41-year old quarterbacks don’t have the best track record of success.
There is a reason for the statistical decline, and it has nothing to do with Brady’s age. Thanks to a series of absurdly bad injury luck, New England’s supporting cast has been in a state of constant turnover.
Rob Gronkowski is clearly playing through significant injury and hasn’t been his normal self. After losing Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks in the off-season, New England lost Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season. Josh Gordon had to learn the entire offense on the fly and then ended up leaving to focus on his mental health. James White suffered an ankle injury in Week Nine and saw his snap count dramatically reduced in the second half. Really, the only consistent factors on offense have been the bottom three receivers of Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson.
In many ways, this receiver turnover mirrors what happened back in 2013 when Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were Brady’s most reliable outside weapons. During that season, Brady completed 60.5% of his passes for 4,343 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
While New England’s current passing options aren’t the best in the world, the Patriots are figuring out the best ways to use them. Phillip Dorsett deserves more playing time, and he got it in Week 17. Likewise, Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the most dangerous players in open space and the offense is significantly more effective with him on the field. The Patriots won’t hold a now-healthy James White back in the playoffs, and White has been historically good this season when on the field.
Stats Don’t Tell Everything
With New England having a serviceable set of weapons, all Brady will need to do is play like his usual dominant self. Brady has had a bit of a dropoff statistically, but that can largely be explained away. In addition to the knee and the roster turnover, Brady was also the victim of some incredibly bad luck.
As discussed in an earlier article, most of Brady’s 11 interceptions weren’t his fault. Brady was clearly to blame for only four of those interceptions, while another was an ill-advised pass that went off the hands of fullback James Develin. For the sake of this exercise, let’s be conservative and also assign Brady the blame for that pass as well.
Brady finished 2018 with a 97.7 passer rating, his lowest mark since the 2014 season. However, let’s assume that Brady only threw five interceptions, and the other six just resulted as incompletions. When taking away these interceptions, Brady would have finished the season with a 102.05 passer rating. This number, while still his lowest since 2014, is just 0.15 points below his 2015 season. When normalizing the bad luck, Brady has produced similarly to past dominant seasons. Consider he also dealt with a knee injury and significant roster turnover, it’s pretty amazing that he’s been as good as he’s been.
Last Word on Tom Brady in the Playoffs
2018 hasn’t been his finest season, but the Brady will finish the year on a high note. Finally healthy from a knee injury, the greatest quarterback of all time is set up to go on another legendary postseason run. Last year, Brady overcame a minor Achilles injury with a week of rest, and history should repeat itself this year.
Some question whether age has caught up with Tom Brady and if he can still be his dominant self. Fortunately, there’s every reason to believe he can. Brady’s numbers were relatively down this year due to his knee injury, a lack of continuity on offense, and a considerable amount of bad luck outside of Brady’s control. When normalizing for the bad luck, Brady’s final passer rating closely mirrors what he did in 2015 and 2017.
New England finally has a consistent set of weapons in Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Chris Hogan, and the running back duo of James White and Sony Michel. These players are all capable of making plays, and Brady has done more with less. Despite all prognosis of doom, Brady will continue to fend off the dreaded cliff.
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