FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There may not have been a more unique set of eyes on Tom Brady Saturday night than the ones in Tennessee’s defensive backfield.
Logan Ryan—who played for New England from 2013-16, won two Super Bowls and graduated to free agency with a four-year masters degree in working against the best quarterback in NFL history in practice—noticed one significant difference in seeing Brady in workouts every day and facing him with a trip to the conference title game on the line.
“The points count in the game,” Ryan said. “When he’s scoring touchdowns in practice they don’t count. But he got going man. He got in his rhythm. It wasn’t just one guy who played bad defensively. It wasn’t the scheme. He continued to attack, continued to attack. It’s what he does well. He executed as well as I’ve seen him.”
Here’s something those who analyze Brady on a regular basis fail to consider: There is a weight to his constant success and to this offense. The Patriots scheme is maddening to stop, and its conductor is a stone-cold killer. Imagine being the opposing defense, crafting the perfect coverages in meetings all week, putting a theoretically sound defense on the board and then watching it get dismantled play by play. As Ryan noted, it’s almost never just one person’s fault. It's an equal opportunity dressing down.
On the first play of the game Saturday, Ryan lined up in the slot and stepped into his man, wide receiver Chris Hogan. Ryan was textbook, elongating his arms, popping his target right in the shoulder pads to get him off the route. Except, the Patriots were running right at Ryan. Hogan was simply clearing the area for Danny Amendola, who motioned from the opposite side, caught a swing pass and glided for six yards.
On the next drive, Brady pointed at the cornerback pre-snap. Ryan faked a blitz and dropped back to cover Amendola, who appeared to be running a route toward the middle of the field. Without much of a pass rush, Brady was free to scan the field and settle back on Amendola once the receiver broke out of his route and made a brief cut toward the sideline. Ryan had his mark played perfectly, protecting the inside leverage. Alas, there is no better internal timing mechanism in football than the one in Brady’s mind. He shimmed the ball in at the perfect moment once Amendola twisted outward.
“There were some good battles in there. He got me a couple times, I got him some. It’s the game within the game. He’s a great Hall-of-Famer. The GOAT,” Ryan said. “I firmly believe that because of the work he puts in. I know that. He came out there and he loves the big stage.”
Brady threw the ball 53 times on Saturday, completing 35 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also threw four “deep” passes after the Patriots had already built a 28–7 lead. In the fourth quarter, up 35–7 on a third-and-nine from the Patriot 43-yard line, Brady was still playing games, shifting James White into the backfield and pushing Brandin Cooks out wide, giving his deep ball threat a chance to burn down the sidelines and catch a “go” route in double coverage. The ball fell incomplete, but as it was in the air, play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz seemed to convey well the frustration and confusion of the moment felt by Tennessee’s defense.
“Oh, look at this,” he said.
When those plays layer on top of one another, it’s hard to wonder how a secondary could sustain itself mentally throughout a 60-minute period. Even when you’re technically sound, Brady finds a way to run up points. Even when he runs up points, he’s going to find a way to run up more points.
After the game, Ryan admirably remained by his locker aware that he’d be part of the story. A reporter late to the scrum asked how a team could start with a 7–0 lead and give up 35 unanswered points after such a positive beginning.
“Number 12,” Ryan said. “Number 12 got going.”