Brady in a class by himself among local legends

526500.jpg

Brady in a class by himself among local legends

By Rich Levine
Standing Room Only

We love to talk about Mount Rushmores in sports. But when it comes to Boston in this era of dominance, Mount Rushmore has only one face.

Thats no disrespect to the other legends of this past decade. Pedro did things weve never seen before (or will again). Papis had so many moments that well never forget. Thomas was invincible, Manny was Manny, Pierce was, and still is, so remarkably reliable. Garnett, Schilling and Pedroia. Vinatieri, Brown and Bruschi. Theyre all greats, and were forever indebted to each and every one. In 10 years, they took this insane asylum of a sports city and upgraded us to . . . I dont know? What the hell is this? I still feel like that drugged up kid coming home from the dentist:

Is this real life?!

But if were talking about Boston legends if were talking legendary none of the guys I just mentioned belong in the same sentence as Tom Brady. (In this case, not even the same paragraph.) When alls said and done, hes the only one well discuss among Williams, Russell, Orr and Bird.

Hes the only guaranteed statue.

Thirty years from now, youll take your son or grandson to Robert Kraft Stadium, presented by Gillette, make your way through the stores, museums and newly-opened theme park, and a bronze Tom Brady will greet you at the gates. Without a doubt. Can you say that for sure about any athlete from these last seven titles?

I guess Papis a possibility, depending on what happens this postseason (and offseason). Pedro was one of a kind, and I dont think anyone would argue with the honor, but is six years of service enough for a statue?

Bradys the only sure thing. Hes in a league of his own.

And for the most part, hes treated as such.

We like to joke about the off-the-field activities (mostly because theyre funny) and pretend to be embarrassed and offended by the quirkiergirlier aspects of his personality, but deep down no one really cares. To be honest, a picture could surface tomorrow of Brady rollerblading through Central Park wearing a pink t-shirt and spandex with a copy of Are you there, Vodka? Its me, Chelsea under his arm, and it wouldnt change a thing. At 31 years old (two and a half years younger than Brady), I can say that his career is (and will be) my most historically significant experience as a sports fan. Hes Larry Bird. Hes Bobby Orr. Hes Bill Russell and Ted Williams. And like I said, I think we all know that, and dont need to be reminded of how good we have it.

But sometimes were reminded, anyway.

When we think of Brady, we always think about the rings. Why? Because theyre all that matter. But also because as a result of the Patriots team philosophy, Bradys slow development as a big-number QB and the fact that his generational counterpart is perhaps the biggest statistical freak in football history Bradys career stats just never get that much attention.

But how about this:

Tom Bradys thrown 261 career touchdown passes which ties him (with Dave Krieg) for 10th on the all-time list.

If he throws 30 touchdowns this season (a very manageable number), hell pass Krieg along with Joe Montana (273), Vinny Testaverde (whaaat?) and Johnny Unitas (290) to move into a tie with Warren Moon (291) for sixth.

If Brady throws 40 touchdowns this season, not likely but certainly not out of the question, hell leapfrog John Elway (300) and claim sole possession of 5th on the NFLs all-time touchdown list.

Fifth.

And then theres this: The 10 quarterbacks with whom Brady shares the Top 10 in touchdowns have thrown an average of 233 career interceptions. Seven of the 10 have thrown more than 200 INTs. Krieg threw 199, Mannings thrown 198 and Montana threw 160.

Bradys thrown 102.

Just like that, his numbers have caught up to the rings.

Of course, thats also part of the problem. Or at least adds context to the only real question that still surrounds the most legendary figure in this era of legendary figures.

How many more rings will there be?

Its a little premature to call Brady old, but seeing that hes about to start his 12th season, and is on the doorstep of some seriously exclusive statistical company, hes undoubtedly getting older.

Hes five years older than Drew Bledsoe was when he took his last snap in New England. Hes old enough to have shared a locker room with Bruce Armstrong. When Brady won his first Super Bowl, he was 24. On that day, 24 was also the combined age of his two current tight ends.

But at the same time, you cant talk about Bradys increasing age without recognizing that it hasnt affected him in the slightest. In fact, hes never been better. He was never a quarterback who relied on speed and athleticism, so as he gets older and his body wears down, hell have less to lose. Then again, his body really hasnt shown signs of breaking down Im sure that has a lot to do with work ethic. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that while this will be his 12th season, Bradys really only taken (thanks to the first year apprenticeship and the eight minutes of 2008 action) nine seasons worth of pounding. But whatever the reason, I dont care Im just happy with the reality.

Bradys already established himself as the greatest athlete of this era, and just about every other. He could do absolutely nothing between now and the day he walks away (for the record, a day I fear more than my first kidney stone) and still own Bostons Mount Rushmore.

But somehow, at this point, no one including Brady will be satisfied with that. We want more. He wants more.

Most importantly, hes still capable of so much more.

Hell take his next step on Monday night.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."