Tom Brady will make postseason history on Saturday. Whether that's a good thing is up to him.
No doubt, Brady has established himself as one of the great postseason quarterbacks in NFL history. That's why it's so shocking that he could also join a notable list of losers.
If the New England Patriots lose this weekend, Brady would become just the fifth quarterback in NFL history to lose four straight postseason games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dave Krieg holds the record at five, followed by Warren Moon, Billy Kilmer and Y.A. Tittle, all of whom lost four in a row.
Worse yet, Brady would be the first quarterback to lose four straight postseason games without any being a road game.
How did Tom Brady go from Joe Montana to Dave Krieg?
Once 14-2 in the postseason, he was cruising toward a fourth Super Bowl title. Just 30, it seemed inevitable that he'd go down as the greatest postseason quarterback. Then, the Patriots lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Fast-forward to 2012, and Brady has lost three straight playoff games.
In the nearly four years since Brady last won a postseason game, he's watched lesser quarterbacks find success. Joe Flacco has four wins in that span. As does Mark Sanchez. Now you can add T.J. Yates to that list. And, of course, Tim Tebow.
How did it come to this?
It's no easy task to find meaningful trends from three games over the course of four years. Yet, there are three clear commonalities in New England's past three playoff losses.
Burned by Slow Starts
The Patriots succeeded in 2011 despite consistently falling behind early. New England was 5-1 when trailing at the end of the first quarter. In eight home games, they led just once going into the second quarter. That issue (chronicled here) became increasingly apparent as the season went on.
The Patriots received the opening kickoff just once all season. That was the chief cause of their slow starts. But with a veteran quarterback, New England didn't panic early.
Will the postseason be a different story?
Perhaps it's not a good sign that their last three postseason games all featured a slow start.
Last year, New England actually led the Jets 3-0 after the first quarter, but it was no thanks to Brady. He threw an interception on his own 28-yard line that New York failed to capitalize on.
Two years ago against the Ravens, Brady had arguably his worst quarter as a professional. He had three turnovers and zero net passing yards in the first quarter.
Brady was 3-for-7 for 23 yards in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLII.
Put those three games together, and Brady's first-quarter struggles become a concern. In the past three postseason games, he had zero touchdowns, three interceptions and a 22.6 passer rating in the first quarter.
Since 2005, the Patriots are 2-5 in postseason games against teams they faced in the regular season. In other words, every postseason loss in Brady's career was a rematch from earlier that season.
Conventional wisdom says familiarity would benefit Bill Belichick given his coaching reputation, but that hasn't been the case in recent years.
Is this merely a coincidence? Probably. After all, the Patriots are bound to face repeat foes given a generally tough regular-season schedule.
But once again, Denver may be a foe particularly capable of exploiting this trend.
In Week 15, the Patriots defeated the Broncos 41-23 thanks to one stretch of 27 unanswered points.
All signs point to a repeat, as evidenced by the double touchdown spread. The Patriots came out on top in 85.9 percent of AccuScore's 10,000 simulations.
Based on records, a Broncos win would be unprecedented in postseason history. According to Elias, this will be just the fifth time in the playoffs that a team with an .800 regular-season win percentage will face a team who was .500 or worse. The previous four were won by the .800 or better squad.
But this is still the Broncos, the team that has given Bill Belichick the most trouble during his Patriots tenure. Even with the win last month, New England is 4-6 against Denver since 2000. It's the only opponent the Patriots have a losing record against in that span.
Brady Under Pressure
Tom Brady has gone 126 straight regular-season games without being sacked five times, a streak that dates back to 2003.
Yet, he's suffered five sacks twice in the past three playoff games.
Keeping Brady protected is essential to New England's success.
In last year's postseason game, the New York Jets brought Brady down five times. That included a pair of sacks for Shaun Ellis, his current teammate.
The Jets managed to pressure the quarterback despite overloading the secondary. On 44 of 50 dropbacks, they used four or fewer pass rushers. The combination of coverage and pressure doomed Brady.
In 2010, Brady was sacked three times by the Baltimore Ravens. The first of those sacks led to a lost fumble in New England's red zone on the third play from scrimmage. The Patriots never recovered.
The Giants sacked Brady five times in Super Bowl XLII. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, only Joe Theismann (sacked six times in Super Bowl XVII) was brought down more in a Super Bowl.
Brady's recipe for postseason success might not be so complicated. In his first 16 postseason games, Brady was sacked an average of 1.4 times per game. In the past three, that's jumped to 4.3 sacks per game.
Brady has suffered more sacks in his past three postseason games than he did in his first nine combined.
This may be of even greater concern this season. Brady was sacked 32 times in 2011, the most he's been brought down since 2003. That includes eight sacks in the past two games alone. Those high sack numbers are partially tied to a career-high in dropbacks, but New England has struggled with protection.
Will the Patriots be able to keep Brady on his feet on Saturday?
Pressure from regular rushers could be key based on what we saw in Week 15. When the Broncos brought four or fewer pass rushers, Brady was just 13-22. But when five or more came after Brady, he was 10-12.
Denver is likely to follow the recipe developed by the Jets a year ago. If the Broncos pressure Brady while overloading the secondary, he could be in for another long day.
Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.