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Tom Brady's almost impossible durability was the difference

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Brady showed up for work on Sunday at age 40, with his left arm dangling from his bum shoulder. During the game he would rip off his helmet and scream profanities, bark at teammate Chris Hogan from the bench, and slam his open right hand into the MetLife Stadium turf after taking big shots from two New York Jets.

It was that kind of maddening day in what has been a maddening six-game season -- by Brady's standards.

"I wish we would have done better," the quarterback said, "but we won."

The New England Patriots won 24-17 because they had Brady on their side, not because officials overturned a New York touchdown on a call that will go down as the most absurd Jets-Pats development since Mark Sanchez ran helmet-first into a teammate's butt on Thanksgiving night in 2012. Had Austin Seferian-Jenkins' fourth-quarter score counted, Brady would have made the plays he needed to, to get the Patriots to 4-2 and claim first place in the AFC East, and deep down every weathered Jets fan in a Namath jersey (even the younger fans in their green Sam Darnold ones) knew it.

Brady wasn't leaving New Jersey without his record 187th career regular-season victory. Trailing 14-0, Brady's offense scored 24 unanswered points to assume control. He wasn't about to lose to these upstarts and fall to 3-3. Remember, Brady once told Boston radio station WEEI that he wouldn't watch HBO's "Hard Knocks" series when rowdy ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan was the main attraction for this simple reason: "I hate the Jets."

Brady hates the Jets so much he has beaten them 24 times in 30 regular-season meetings. He has won 14 AFC East titles since becoming New England's quarterback in 2001, which is 13 more than the Jets have won in that period. Even though Bill Belichick had spent the week acting as if his Patriots were facing the 1968 Jets, and not the current team once expected to go 2-14 in its bid for the No. 1 draft pick, the quarterback knew better.

Aside from 2008, when he wrecked his knee, Brady has never let the Jets up for air. He doesn't miss any games against them, or any snaps, because he sees availability and accountability as his most important articles of football faith. "Ever since I started playing sports," Brady said, "I felt like I had to be out there for my team, and I work pretty hard at it."

Upon entering a room full of reporters and cameras across from his locker room, Brady was asked to react to the news that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had broken his collarbone against Minnesota. "I didn't know that," Brady said. "That sucks. Sucks."

On a day when the league lost one of its signature stars, again, it was worth revisiting Brady's most valuable asset: his staggering durability.

Brady has made a run of 147 consecutive regular-season and postseason starts from age 32 to 40, not counting last year's four-game suspension. At age 30, Brady had his best statistical season when he threw 50 touchdown passes against eight interceptions in going 16-0. At ages 39 and 40, Brady has thrown 41 touchdown passes against four interceptions in going 15-3.

"I think that's a great thing for any player," Brady said of his durability. "The only way to improve is to stay out there. I think a team can only really count on you if you're out there practicing and playing."

He played against the Jets with a left shoulder injured from the pounding he has taken this year. (He was sacked 16 times over the first five games after being sacked 15 times all of 2016.) Brady threw an interception to Buster Skrine, and got lucky when the Jets' cornerback dropped a gimme pick near the sideline. But in the end, Brady found tight end Rob Gronkowski for two touchdown passes and threw the sweetest 42-yard pass to receiver Brandin Cooks to set up the first of Gronk's two TDs in the final seconds of the first half. Brady also fired a perfect third-and-7 sideline strike to Danny Amendola late in the fourth quarter -- a strike that would've effectively sealed the game -- but the receiver dropped the pass and gave the home team one last shot.

The Jets failed to capitalize, and their cute 2017 story ran smack into the franchise and its quarterback who have owned them for so, so long. Brady already owned the NFL career record for all-time victories, postseason included. It was nice for him to break the regular-season tie with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre and tuck No. 187 inside his travel bag, even if Brady didn't feel the need to remind anyone about it.

"I didn't know that," Devin McCourty said. "I don't think anybody knew that. He doesn't even talk about it. I guess he has so many records."

But few as meaningful as this one.

"Great," Belichick said. "That's what we're all here for, is to win games. We've been very fortunate to have had Tom at the helm for a lot of those wins."

It really is a hell of a story, how Tom Brady became the most prolific winner of all. Only a few seasoned football men saw the potential in Brady when he was at Michigan. The late Patriots assistant, Dick Rehbein, was one of them, and he told Belichick to draft Brady ahead of another college prospect he worked out, Louisiana Tech's Tim Rattay. Matt Cavanaugh, a Baltimore assistant, was another, and he advised the Ravens to take Brady over the quarterback they ultimately picked in the third round, Louisville's Chris Redman.

Whitey Walsh, a longtime Giants scout, also pushed hard for Brady. When Walsh first visited Ann Arbor, he showed up with a list of Michigan players who had an "X" marking the names of the Wolverines he was assigned to study. There was an "X" next to the name Drew Henson, heralded backup, but no "X" next to the name Tom Brady, unheralded starter.

"But I always thought you should look at any senior who is starting; maybe they have something," Walsh said by phone. "You watch four, five, six plays, and if they don't show anything you leave them off the list. I watched Brady, and he was actually pretty good. He was very careful with his passes, very accurate, no interceptions. I wondered if his arm would be strong enough. If you saw him -- and he was listed that day at 6-foot-5, 195 pounds -- he didn't look good. He looked kind of emaciated, with no muscle definition."

Walsh returned later for another Michigan game and liked Brady even more. "I put him on the list," the scout said, "and figured, it can't hurt. Let's give him a grade and at least we can talk about him. Turns out nobody else [with the Giants] had his name down. I gave Brady a middle-to-late-round grade, and when I was in the draft room I guess I got drowned out. Whoever heard of Tom Brady?"

In the Giants' draft room, Walsh said he brought up Brady again during the sixth round, with his team holding the 177th overall pick. The Giants picked Brady's Michigan teammate, linebacker Dhani Jones, and the Patriots made their fateful sixth-round choice 22 picks later.

Ernie Accorsi was the Giants' general manager at the time, and four years later he acquired Eli Manning, the quarterback who would twice beat Brady in the Super Bowl. Accorsi said Walsh wasn't timid in his approach. "He didn't just bring it up," Accorsi said. "He was very forceful. Fought hard. No one listened. ... It's my fault that I didn't act on his urging to draft Brady.

"Truly, the Brady story is one of the great mysteries of all time. It's not like he was playing at Augustana. He threw four touchdown passes in the Orange Bowl against Alabama. ... We were all asleep."

All these years later, the retired Walsh, 75, ranks Brady as the greatest quarterback ever -- just ahead of John Elway and Johnny Unitas. On Sunday, after throwing against rookie safeties who were 6 and 8 years old when Brady won his first of five Super Bowls, the quarterback admitted being "a little edgy" and frustrated during the game and criticized himself for not putting more points on the board.

"I wish I could have played a little better today," Brady said, "but it was at least nice to be out there."

Playing a dangerous position in a dangerous sport, Tom Brady is always out there. It's what separates him from everyone else. That, and the record book.