Tom Brady back where he started

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It isn't perfect anymore, like it was in the early days, when Tom Brady was young and green and blessed. Every Super Bowl he touched back then turned to gold, and the enduring image was of the young quarterback holding his head in disbelief as all his football dreams came true at the tender age of 23.

Three championships in four seasons. An instant legacy of clutch play and invincibility.

But then came the stick 'em on David Tyree's helmet, and no stick 'em at all for the usually sure-handed Wes Welker, and just like that, the Super Bowl suddenly was all about heartbreak.

This season would be different, Brady surmised in the privacy of his own home. Gronk was healthy, and Julian Edelman was money, and the quarterback had struck a chord with newcomer Brandon LaFell. And even though many thought Danny Amendola couldn't help, Brady knew better. He believed in his running backs and an offensive line that grew and matured as the weather turned cold and the football mattered most.

"Mental toughness," Brady said. "Physical toughness."

You need both to erase a 10-point deficit on the game's biggest stage as the clock starts ticking down. Brady and the Patriots were trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter, and team owner Robert Kraft scanned the sideline to gauge the mood of his quarterback.

"I know him like a book," Kraft reported. "When I see him go out there with a certain body language, I can tell what he's going to do. And let me tell you something: When he gets his Irish up, you better watch out."

Brady was irritated, all right. He had thrown a pick into the end zone in the opening quarter, which cost his team valuable points, then threw another that led to a Seattle touchdown.

"Crappy plays," he would correctly term them later.

"But the thing about Tom," tight end Tim Wright said, "is those plays don't carry over. There's never any panic."

With 11:56 on the game clock, Brady began a "must score" drive by getting sacked for an 8-yard loss.

After a short pass to LaFell, Brady was on the run on third-and-14, with his eyes fixated on the redoubtable Edelman, who completed a catch-and-run for a 21-yard gain that ignited his teammates. Six plays later, Brady connected with Amendola in the end zone.

The defense delivered a critical three-and-out stand so Brady could get the ball back quickly. He was finally in a rhythm as he tossed a screen pass to Shane Vereen, threaded a couple of missiles to Gronk and, finally, landed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Edelman. Brady was 8-for-8 on the drive, a signature moment in a career already front-loaded with clutch performances.

Asked afterward if it reminded him of the game-winning drive when he won his first Super Bowl in New Orleans, Brady grinned and answered, "Hard to remember that far back. I'm a little older now."

He had given his team a 28-24 lead with 2:02 left, yet the game, he knew, wasn't over.

As Brady waited -- and hoped -- Jermaine Kearse hauled in one of those are-you-kidding-me grabs that harkened back to ghosts of Super Bowls pasts.

"I couldn't believe it," Kraft said. "Like the Tyree catch."

Funny how history hinges on one play. If Seattle had scored and won Super Bowl XLIX, the talk this morning would be the diminishing window of opportunity for New England's quarterback.

Instead, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, the 24-year-old, undrafted rookie, vaulted in front of Ricardo Lockette and intercepted Russell Wilson's pass at the goal line to secure the Patriots' victory.

Brady let it all go then, jumping and screaming like a school boy, immersed in those old, familiar feelings of euphoria and relief and the realization that all the offseason workouts and the strict diet and his dedication to the nuances of each and every set in the playbook had paid off. After a 10-year hiatus, the New England Patriots once again were Super Bowl champions, and their quarterback once again was the game's most valuable player.

It wasn't an unblemished Brady performance, but it might have been the grittiest. He threw 50 passes and completed 37 of them, a Super Bowl record. He spent a chunk of the evening on his back, leveled by relentless pass-rusher Michael Bennett.

For the better part of two weeks, Tom Brady has been under siege because of deflated footballs.

The younger, more mobile Wilson, billed as The Next Great Thing, threatened to steal the stage with his crafty footwork and elegant deep balls, but his mistake in the final seconds will haunt him during a long offseason plagued with "what ifs."

For the first time in a decade, Brady will not second-guess himself. He has won four Super Bowls, the same number as his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, and the great Terry Bradshaw. Pundits will debate his legacy for months to come, and he will politely decline to participate in the conversation.

"I never put myself in those discussions," Brady said. "That's not how I think. There are so many great players that have been on so many great teams. I think you've just got to enjoy the moment."

He will savor this one because it is the first he will celebrate with his wife and the growing family that has done the one thing he never thought possible: divert his attention from the game of football.

"It was a tough day," Brady said. "A lot of energy, a lot of effort."

And a lot of redemption for a 37-year-old quarterback who is back where he started -- on top.