Niyo: Brady stakes claim as NFL's greatest QB

John Niyo
The Detroit News

It took a boneheaded play call by the reigning champs, and a game-saving defensive play by an undrafted rookie who moments earlier was being fitted for goat horns.

And as Tom Brady would later admit, "It wasn't the way we drew it up."

But in the end, this script was as good as any, and certainly better than the alternative, engineering the largest second-half comeback in Super Bowl history and then enduring the luckiest last stand you could imagine.

To understand that you only needed to watch Brady's reaction on the sideline, jumping around like a 37-year-old kid, when Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson's goal-line pass in the final minute. Or the grin on Brady's face after he took a triumphant knee to run out the clock just as it appeared it might run out on him.

"It's been a long journey," he told reporters after the Patriots' 28-24 victory in Glendale, Arizona. "It's just a great win."

It's more than that, though, for Brady, who might've cemented his status as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

"Those discussions are for someone else," he insisted afterward.

But they're legitimate, and in my book it's a lock, now that Brady has tied his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, with his fourth Super Bowl ring — Terry Bradshaw is the only other starting quarterback with four — and his third Super Bowl MVP. And who's to say he won't add more in the years to come?

Legendary legacy

Still, that Brady did it in record-setting, career-defining fashion Sunday only made sense, given all the yammering the past couple weeks about deflated footballs and tarnished reputations. This is a quarterback, mind you, who has won more playoff games (20) in his career than 21 NFL teams have in their respective histories.

It'd take a lot to let the air out of that legacy, no? Sunday, I'd say he was determined to remind everyone of that, even if he wasn't about to admit it afterward.

Brady, the former Michigan quarterback, completed 37 of 50 passes for 328 yards with four touchdown passes to four different receivers. He set a Super Bowl record for completions and broke Montana's record of 11 TD passes in the sport's biggest game. (Brady now has 13 for his career in the Super Bowl.)

But it was that final scoring drive for the Patriots that was vintage Brady, right down to that fist pump after he'd hit Julian Edelman on a nifty slant-return route — the same play he'd missed earlier in the quarter. Brady was 8-for-8 on that decisive drive, crisp and clean, cutting apart the league's best defense with his customary precision.

Asked later if that just might be the signature moment of his career, Brady shrugged it off.

"I didn't think about that," he told reporters.

But he doesn't have to think about it, not anymore. Brady doesn't need to compare this winning drive to the ones he made a decade ago, the last time he'd had this feeling.

"Hard to remember that far back," he joked. "I'm a little bit older now. But you just have to make the plays to win."

Return to glory

He would know, of course. Brady won three Super Bowls in his first four years as a starter in the league. But he's been chasing the fourth ever since, and so have the Patriots. And you could see it was wearing on them all, from the owner, Robert Kraft, to the coach, Bill Belichick, to the quarterback who'd helped make them both champions.

"Well, it's been a long journey," Brady agreed Sunday night.

There was the perfect season undone by the New York Giants and that miracle catch by David Tyree in 2008. The career-threatening knee injury for Brady the following season. And then came that crushing loss a few years ago — again to the Giants — where the Patriots coughed up the lead in the final minute and Brady spent an eternity in the locker room after the game, distraught and in disbelief.

Sunday sure had that same look about it, too, when the Seahawks' Jermaine Kearse made that circus catch late in the fourth quarter, setting up what looked to be a certain touchdown for Seattle and a stunning defeat for New England.

But then the Seahawks made that inexplicable decision to pass the ball at the goal line, instead of handing it to Marshawn Lynch — as terrible a call as we've seen in a game of this magnitude. Pete Carroll took the bullet for it, but his offensive coordinator probably pulled the trigger.

Either way, they shot themselves in the foot something awful there, as Wilson's throw was intercepted with 20 seconds left.

Yes, the Butler did it.

"Saved our season," Brady said.

Secured something else, too, though. Something a rookie truly couldn't appreciate, but a 37-year-old kid surely could.