When the Patriots made the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, the essential question was this: if Tom Brady were to be injured, could Garoppolo have led the Patriots to a Super Bowl title in Brady's stead?
My answer has been no, and I think it was part of the reason the Patriots decided they could part with Garoppolo. After the injuries to Julian Edelman and Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots' room for error in winning a title has dramatically shrunk and it's now only Brady's ability to perform better than any other quarterback in the league.
And I'm not talking about his physical abilities: throwing the ball, moving in the pocket, fitting the ball into tight windows most didn't think existed. Sure, those are part of the discussion and are great, but Brady, at age 40, gains his edge in other ways. Notably, he processes various bits of information quicker than anyone else in the game. Brady explained it to Peter King after the Super Bowl:
“I have the answers to the test now,” Brady said.
“You can’t surprise me on defense. I’ve seen it all. I’ve processed 261 games, I’ve played them all. It’s an incredibly hard sport, but because the processes are right and are in place, for anyone with experience in their job, it’s not as hard as it used to be. There was a time when quarterbacking was really hard for me because you didn’t know what to do. Now I really know what to do, I don’t want to stop now. This is when it’s really enjoyable to go out.”
This learned ability can manifest itself in many different ways, many of which are obvious to anyone watching him on Sundays. But there's also the subtle greatness to his game that no one else can replicate, and it's tough to discern.
There were two examples on Sunday night against the Broncos, both on the same drive in the fourth quarter when the outcome was no longer in doubt, that shows why Brady is still making a difference for this (let's be honest) not overly skilled Patriots team. And it's why Garoppolo or anyone else isn't capable of doing the same in the near future.
Score: Patriots 34, Broncos 16
Time: 11:15 left in the fourth quarter.
Situation: 1st-and-10 at the Denver 24-yard line.
Result: Brady 9-yard pass to Brandin Cooks.
This play may or may not have been a run/pass option, but I'm guessing Brady had the ability to hand off right to Rex Burkhead if he wanted. Brady likely gave a signal that he was going to throw the backside slant off this play to Cooks instead of handing off.
In any event, Brady goes through the run action of the play, which includes him turning his back to Cooks (another subtle but important part of this play). You need to have trust in your teammates to do that, and Brady fakes the handoff to Burkhead and then spins back to throw to Cooks.
Now, when Brady does that, he's expecting to throw the ball immediately to Cooks on a quick hitch because Brady saw pre-snap that the cornerback playing well off Cooks. But when Brady does turn around, Cooks did not hitch — he's still running a route down the field.
At this point, 95 percent of NFL quarterbacks (including Garoppolo) would either panic and a) take a sack, b) flee the pocket, c) throw the ball up for grabs, or d) throw the ball away.
What does Brady do? He doesn't panic. He recoils, sets himself and makes a strong and accurate throw to Cooks' back shoulder to keep him out of harm's way. The result: a ho-hum 9-yard gain, when most quarterbacks would have produced disaster.
Score: Patriots 34, Broncos 16
Time: 9:16 left in the fourth quarter.
Situation: 2nd-and-4 at the Denver 6-yard line.
Result: Incomplete pass to Cooks.
So the Patriots run a fairly normal play for them — hard run action to the right, and then throw to the backside crosser for the score. It's the same concept they used when Dwayne Allen scored his first touchdown as a Patriot earlier in the game. This time they run it to perfection and Cooks is running across the end zone with no defenders in front of him. Only this doesn't end up as a touchdown: Brady throws it out of the end zone for an incompletion. I know what you're thinking: An incomplete pass shows Brady's greatness? Really Bedahd? You've totally lost it. Yeah, I get it. But bear with me.
So the picture above is the money shot. At the top of the drop, 99 percent of quarterbacks would just lay the ball out to the "O" in Broncos and let their receiver run under it. But Brady doesn't do that. Why? There's always a reason. Brady has spent so much time studying the cornerback in coverage, Chris Harris, that Brady instantly computes that Harris will make a play on the ball because of his standout recovery speed. So Brady decides in that instant that his best course of action would be to put some air under it and put the ball in a place only Cooks can catch it along the end line. It doesn't work, but the Patriots live to fight another play and score when James White runs a great route for the score.
Answers to the test.
I'd be willing to bet that almost any other NFL QB (including Garoppolo) would have laid the ball out and it would have been batted away or intercepted.
Two, largely meaningless plays show the wide gap between Brady and everyone else, and why he's continuing to make the ultimate difference for this team.
The two plays together:
Here are the positional ratings against the Broncos:
Quarterback (4.5 out of 5)
Brady, like the rest of the Patriots' offense, didn't have to do a whole lot of heavy lifting in the first half thanks to the blocked punt and kickoff return, and they fizzled out twice in the red zone. But starting with the touchdown drive to close out the first half, Brady and the Patriots caught fire with three-straight scoring drives of at least 70 yards. ... By the end of it all, Brady was efficient (8 plus plays, 4 minus plays) and he did a lot of subtle things — checks and motions — to keep the offensive line out of danger when it came to Von Miller. ... Brady looks very thankful to have Martellus Bennett back. If he's healthy, he'll help pick up the Edelman slack.
Running backs (4.5 out of 5)
This grade is solely because of Burkhead's punt block and Lewis' touchdown return, because the group was mediocre overall. It was mostly thanks to James White giving up a rare sack in pass pro and not putting his pads down on third down to gain a first down that was blocked well enough. Burkhead didn't run a screen the right way, but he continues to be the best of the bunch when he's in the lineup.
Receivers (4 out of 5)
A lot of really good work in this group (Chris Hogan who)? Both Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola looked reborn after the bye week and with lesser workloads. That's exactly what the Patriots need to do in order to keep both healthy for the end of the season. This is a huge key. The Mutt & Jeff of the Patriots combined for 10 plus plays and no minus plays (clean sheet). ... James Develin continues to play his best ball of late, and the use of the two-back offense is really giving the offense and the line a physicality it lacked earlier in the season. ... Brandin Cooks need to be a little tougher against physical play going down the field or else every team is going to body him. Yes, he got bumped a few times, but he's got to fight for the ball instead of acting for a call. ... As great as it was that Dwayne Allen scored his first touchdown on his reception (our regional nightmare is over), he should have had another if just ran a little bit sharper route (video).
Offensive line (4.5 out of 5)
How about this: both the QB pressure rate (18.4 percent) and stuff percentage (10.7) vs. the Broncos were season-low numbers, so Mazel to Scar and the crew. That's a major correction from the Chargers game, which was near the season highs in both categories, before the bye. ... Joe Thuney, who has been inconsistent in his second season, might have had the best game by a Patriots lineman this season. Completely clean sheet, and he had three "plus" run blocks where he just manhandled the lineman. It's like somebody sat him down after an unfocused Chargers game and told him, "You're better than that. Start playing like it." ... David Andrews had another clean sheet and hasn't allowed a pressure in four-straight games after starting the season with nine in the first three. ... Nate Solder and LaAdrian Waddle had the best-combined tackle performance of the season. Waddle got a lot of help either from teammates and/or scheme, but he continued to be a super sub. ... Shaq Mason was decent, but not a standout. ... Cam Fleming played nine snaps and gave up a stuff and missed a screen block.
Defensive line (3 out of 5)
A few blown gaps here and there but overall a good performance except in one regard: this is becoming the no-pressure front. Since having a pressure rate of at least 30 percent (about average) three times in the first four games, the Patriots haven't cracked 29 percent in the previous five games. I don't care how many points they're giving up, that's a concern. ... Trey Flowers is basically a one-man band up front. He's just been consistently very good all season. ... Adam Butler showed more friskiness in the run game than he has in weeks, as he had his first stuffed run since Week 5 (he also got off a block on another play).
Linebackers (3.5 out of 5)
Nice work by this group, which is growing in numbers as the Patriots start to feel comfortable chopping up duties among a cast of characters. In order of performance: Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Trevor Reilly, Marquis Flowers, David Harris, Jordan Richards. ... Looks like someone's been tinkering with Roberts. He seemed much more prepared, focused and played within himself with some maturity. A promising sign.
Secondary (2 out of 5)
Really uneven performance as everyone except for Patrick Chung had their share of issues in this one. ... Malcolm Butler gave up five plays, but chipped in a pass defensed and QB hit on a blitz (which they're doing more than ever with him). ... Stephon Gilmore helped thwart two third downs, but had a (ticky-tack) penalty, got beat on a drop by Demaryius Thomas and gave on a touchdown on another — yes, another — communication error. Video:
Joe Thuney: About as good as an offensive line performance as you're going to see this year. He strong, physical and nasty. Somebody got into his ear a little bit.
Rob Gronkowski: Didn't have to do everything at the position for once, and the difference was notable. This was vintage Gronk in every facet of the game.
Elandon Roberts: If this is a new and mature E-Rob 2.0, color us intrigued.
Honorable mention: Tom Brady, David Andrews, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Patrick Chung.
Cam Fleming: If you play nine snaps, give up a stuffed run and elicit a response from a teammate like this because you missed a screen block, it's not a good night.
Malcolm Butler: He needs to get out of his own head, not try to prove he's worth more money than Stephon Gilmore, and just play ball.
James White: A very, very rare off night for Sweet Feet. Gave up a sack, didn't pick up a first down that was there to be had ... looked unfocused.