Brady thrives under pressure

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Damien Woody, the Patriots left guard, was talking about quarterback Tom Brady last week.

"He's just a cool guy," Woody said. "He's like, 'We've been here, done that. Let's just go do it again.' He doesn't panic.

"We've been in the Super Bowl, we've been in overtime games. When was the last time this team blew somebody out?"

Good question. The Patriots are 10-2, but they have only outscored opponents by an average of four points per game.

Maybe, it was suggested to Woody by a reporter with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, Brady does it on purpose -- keeps the game close so he can be the hero.

"Maybe he likes bringing a lot of drama to the table," Woody said, smiling and warming to the concept. "The quarterbacks, they like being a star."

What about it, Tom? Does he intentionally play lousy, Brady was asked, so he can lead the Patriots down the field and be the star?

Brady, bundled up in a winter parka after a wind-chilled practice, laughed.

"I think he's full of it," Brady said. "Hey, I would like to go out there every week and throw for 400 yards and (have) our team win by 30, but that's not the reality.

"I think you get into those situations and you can look at it one of two ways. You can say, 'Ahh, God, this sucks.' Or you can say, 'Man, we're down seven, we've got a shot to come back and be a hero this game.' I think that attitude is taken by our whole offense. I mean, everybody remembers those great two-minute drives, those great players that could do that."

Four days later, it came to pass.

Against the Colts in Indianapolis, Brady completed his first 12 passes - a career best - and, after a sweet slant to Dedric Ward, had the Patriots on top 17-0 barely three minutes into the second quarter. It was 31-10, when the Colts - aided and abetted by Brady - came back.

Interceptions by Donald Strickland and Nick Harper helped Indianapolis level the game at 31-all. This, of course, is the kind of situation Brady thrives in. After Bethel Johnson returned a kickoff 67 yards to the Colts' 31-yard-line, Brady needed only three plays to produce a touchdown. On third-and-7 from the Colts' 13-yard-line, Brady hit Deion Branch in the right corner of the end zone and the Patriots led, 38-31 with 8:36 left in the game.

The defense and its dramatic goal-line stand -- the Colts failed to score the go-ahead touchdown on four plays from the 1-yard-line - made all the headlines, but Brady had done it again.

"We gave them a chance to get back in the game," Brady said. "Today we started fast, slowed down and then we finished fast."

Indeed they did. The Patriots won a wild one, 38-34, their eighth win in a row. Brady's numbers in the clutch, believe it or not, are even more impressive.

In only his second full season, at age 26, Brady has now authored 13 comeback victories -- games in which he has rallied the Patriots in the fourth quarter or overtime from a deficit or tie -- in 42 career starts. That's a heady comeback percentage of .309, nearly a third of his games. Incredibly, it has happened four times in the last six games.

It's worth noting that the NFL record belongs to the Broncos' John Elway, who led 47 game-winning or game-saving drives in the fourth quarter. But with 231 career starts, Elway's comeback percentage is only .203., about one in five.

While Priest Holmes, Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, Jon Kitna and Steve McNair have been generating a lot of MVP heat, if Brady runs the table -- a possibility, considering that after this week's game against the Dolphins, the schedule offers the Jaguars, Jets and Bills -- he could thrust himself into that debate.

Consider this: after the 23-20 victory over Houston two weeks ago, Brady is 7-0 in overtime.

"He loves those moments," said tackle Matt Light. "He's such a big-time competitor that he's not going to give up. When it comes to those situations where we need seven points and there's a minute-thirty left, that confidence is always there. His ability to lead this team and march us down there and get those points has been just incredible."

Brady downplays all the attention with a disarming smile and this perspective:

"What's the worst that could happen?" he asked. "We're already down and we've played bad enough … the worst thing that could happen is that we stay the same. And the best thing that could happen is that we go out there and throw a touchdown pass."

Statistical food for thought
There are four weeks left in the regular season and the NFL schedule maker has an early Christmas present for the football fan: A slate of terrific games between many of the best teams in the league.

New England meets the 8-4 Dolphins, while the Colts face the Titans in a battle of 9-3 teams and the Eagles (9-3) face off against the Cowboys (8-4). Looking for a common thread? Tom Brady and the Patriots have beaten all five of those teams. Throw in his comeback effort over the Denver Broncos, who host the 11-1 Chiefs in a game that is clearly open to suggestion, and Brady's fingerprints are all over this NFL Sunday.

Maybe it's just the crusty cynicism of New Englanders, but there are still rabid debates over the relative merits of Brady vs. Drew Bledsoe, the deposed star he replaced in the lineup during the run to Super Bowl XXXVI two years ago. Brady, a handsome and eligible bachelor, has been characterized in some quarters as, get this, lucky.

Well, Brady has the best record of any active NFL quarterback with more than 20 starts -- and, given the athletes involved, that is quite impressive. Winning is, afterall, the ultimate bottom line. Certainly, numbers can lie, but these statistics would pass any polygraph test:

1. Tom Brady 30-12, .714
2. Kurt Warner 35-15, .700
3. Jay Fiedler 34-15, .694
4. Donovan McNabb 40-20, .667
5. Brett Favre 121-64, .654

The one asterisk belongs to Marc Bulger of St. Louis. With Warner in decline, Bulger is a spectacular 15-3 (.833) in 18 starts for the Rams. Still, it will be worth checking back in a few seasons to see where his winning percentage is and if he's won a Super Bowl.

It's extremely early in the curve, but Brady is putting up numbers that coexist nicely with the great names in quarterbacking history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two quarterbacks with 40 or more starts in the Super Bowl era (1966-present) finished their career with a winning percentage over .700 -- Roger Staubach 85-29 (.746) and Joe Montana 117-47 (.713). Other notable quarterbacks are a good distance behind: Terry Bradshaw 107-51 (.677), John Elway 148-82-1 (.643) and Dan Marino 147-93 (.613).

Which comes first, confidence or results? With Brady, it's hard to tell.

In Week 7, the Patriots were tied with the Dolphins at 13-all in overtime and got the ball at their own 18-yard-line.

"Zack Thomas and I were on the field talking about how this is what football is all about and high-fiving each other," remembered wide receiver Troy Brown. "And I walked into the huddle and (Tom) said, 'This is your play. It's your chance to hit the long ball.' "

Brady launched a rocket and Brown scored on an 82-yard touchdown pass. One play. End of game. End of Dolphins.

"In that kind of situation, you have to be aggressive to come back," Brown said. "That's the attitude he has. You can't play this game and be afraid. He's not afraid. And I think it permeates through the rest of us when we see it on his face."

Running back Kevin Faulk said Brady has the heart of a champion.

"It's not what you're going to do it, it's how you're going to do it," Faulk said. "He'll say in the huddle, 'This is what champions are made of. Let's see if we're a championship team.' "

New England trailed Houston 20-13 two weeks ago with three minutes, 11 seconds left. Brady took the Patriots 76 yards down the field in eight plays -- then faced a fourth-and-one at the Texans' 4.

"Tom was relaxed in the huddle," said tight end Daniel Graham. "He called the play like he knew … he just had confidence that this was going to work."

Brady rolled right and, just when the Texas defense converged on him, he flicked an off-balance throw to Graham in the end zone. That tied it at 20-all with 40 seconds left.

"We've done it over and over and over again," Brady said, "and for us not to score would have shocked me a hell of a lot more than scoring."

A 76-yard drive in overtime set up Adam Vinatieri's winning 28-yard field goal.

When Brady says something in the huddle, the Patriots believe.

"We do," Graham said. "We believe him."

Said Brady, "I think that's a feeling like I've got it all figured out. There's nothing that can shock me anymore, and there's nothing that I haven't already anticipated, so at that point, I think, there is a calmness."

Slow starter, fast finisher
Brady sits in the visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium. After a soothing post-practice massage he is extremely relaxed.

Even after he is interviewed by an ESPN reporter for 15 minutes, he has no objections when he is asked for a few definitions. The answers are telling.

"Confidence," Brady says, somehow sounding modest, "is believing 100 percent that you'll be able to get the job done."

Brady has always believed in himself. He was a sixth-round choice of the Patriots in the 2000 NFL draft from the University of Michigan. There were 11 quarterbacks taken in that draft, and while Chad Pennington (No. 18, Jets) and Marc Bulger (No. 169, Saints) have been terrific, Giovanni Carmazzi (No. 65, 49ers), Chris Redman (No. 75, Ravens), Tee Martin (No. 163, Steelers), and the legendary Spergon Wynn (No. 183, Browns), were all taken ahead of Brady.

He has always been something of a slow starter. He earned only two varsity letters at Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif., -- the alma mater of Lynn Swann and Barry Bonds. He backed up Brian Griese (a fellow NFL sixth-rounder) as a sophomore when the Wolverines won the national title in 1997.

Brady threw three passes his rookie year behind Bledsoe, but when Bledsoe was knocked out against the Jets in the second game of the 2001 season, Brady became head coach Bill Belichick's choice the rest of the way. He set a league record for pass attempts (162) without an interception to start a career.

The Patriots finished the regular season with an 11-5 record and, after a bye, played the Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoffs. It was a game made memorable by the Tuck Rule interpretation and five inches of fresh, driving snow but, ultimately, it was Brady's game.

With New England down 13-3 in the fourth quarter, Brady completed all nine passes in a drive that he finished with a 6-yard rushing touchdown. In overtime, he completed 8-for-8 to set up Vinatieri's winning 23-yard field goal in overtime. In harsh conditions -- in the first playoff games of his career -- Brady completed 32 of 52 passes for 312 yards.

That would be the working definition of cool (literally) under pressure.

"Cool under pressure," Brady said, "is keeping your poise and never allowing your opponent or your teammates to see that your confidence is shaken."

In the suffocating pressure of Super Bowl XXXVI, Brady displayed unnatural poise. With the score tied at 17-all with one minute, 21 seconds left, Brady -- without the benefit of any timeouts -- took the Patriots 53 yards in eight plays. Brady was 5-for-6 with two intentional spikes, the last one coming in a ridiculously casual manner with seven seconds left. Vinatieri kicked the winning 48-yard field goal as time ran out, marking the first and only Super Bowl to end on the final play.

What is "it" that Brady has?

"There's no real way to put a word to it," Light said. "You've either got it or you don't -- and he has it."

His considerable talents, however, do not extend to defining pressure. When asked to do so, he failed miserably.

"Pressure is knowing exactly when something is on the line," Brady began, sounding convincing. "Something critical is there to gain … I think that's the pressure to grab hold of something and obtain something that maybe a lot of ways -- that's a (expletive deleted) definition. What the hell am I talking about? That was pathetic -- do we need to answer with that one?

"That's a tough question," he said. "It's very intangible, it's just a feeling, pressure … "

Brady laughed and slumped in his chair.

"God," he said. "I do have a college degree. Do we have an extra tape over there?"

Brady agonized over his inability to capture the meaning of pressure, but he needn't have beaten himself up.

Apparently, he couldn't define what he doesn't feel.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.