Tom Brady still wears the playoff pants

After we get past the wicked liberties the tabloids have taken with his Justin Bieber lookalike phase (must be hair plugs and extensions!), and after we get beyond the snickering about the $20 million mega-mansion in the celebrity-studded Brentwood section of L.A. (even more proof that he's being led around by his supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen!), we arrive at this: Tom Brady sure as hell still wears the pants in the NFL.

He's back to being the gargantuan presence looming over the NFL playoffs, even though the top-seeded Patriots have a bye this weekend.

Brady is the brick wall at the end of the road for whichever Super Bowl team emerges from the NFC, and he's the trump card that undoes the dwindling crowd still arguing Michael Vick as league MVP. Brady and the Patriots are a league-best 14-2, and they're back to being the yardstick for every team that survives Saturday and Sunday's opening playoff round.

In the AFC, he's the immovable object that usually gets the better of the irresistible force of Peyton Manning. He exchanged on- and off-field insults with Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs this season. He's the antidote to Jets bon vivant Rex Ryan, the rare NFL head coach whose mouth is always ready to go to triple overtime.

Brady ripped Ryan's beloved defense from goalpost to goalpost when the Patriots trounced the visiting Jets 45-3 in their breathlessly hyped "Monday Night Football" game Dec. 6 when both AFC East rivals were 9-2 -- then instantly snapped back to his aw-shucks routine when a sideline reporter interviewed him coming off the field.

"Coach Belichick always says when you lose, say little. And when you win, say even less," Brady said with that choirboy look of his.


That wasn't Brady's attitude during the game. Long after the outcome was decided, he took every snap and kept passing against the Jets just to rub-a-dub-dub-dub it in like a sledgehammer, which not only delighted Patriots fans but conjured up his early-season remark that he "hated" the Jets. He rode his own team hard too, going face mask to face mask with teammates at times, stalking the sideline, chewing out the offense at halftime for how it played in the last two minutes of the second quarter though the Pats were leading 24-3.

He even surprised veteran running back Fred Taylor when Taylor checked in with less than six minutes to play and the Pats leading by 42.

"I'm coming into the game when it's all but over, and Tommy is right in my face shouting, 'C'mon Freddy, take it to the [expletive] house!" Taylor told ESPNBoston.com.

Taylor marveled that Brady never stops competing. But Brady has always been that way. People forget -- if they ever knew at all -- that long before he was a mere sixth-round draft choice by the Pats or only split time with the long-forgotten Drew Henson right through to his senior year at the University of Michigan, Brady was barely recruited by big-time colleges until late in his high school career in San Mateo, Calif.

Baseball was his other sport, and he was a good-enough hitting catcher for the Montreal Expos to choose in the 18th round the year he graduated. But he was far more interested in football. So he worked and worked at it -- cajoling his father to take him to offseason football camps and spray-painting lines on their backyard patio to do agility drills because he was constantly told he was too slow afoot. Finally, Brady and his father decided to put together a video of his games and mail it to about 55 Division I schools they randomly selected between his junior and senior years of high school.

"There was minimal contact from recruiters before we sent it out," Tom Sr. has said. "Afterward, the telephone lines lit up."

How funny is that? The NFL's best quarterback -- the one with more rings than any quarterback of his generation, the guy who can tie his boyhood hero Joe Montana if he wins a fourth Super Bowl title this year and lay claim to best ever -- launched his career as the football equivalent of a mail-order bride.

The usual things -- work and a marathoner's persistence -- got Brady here. And yet his pretty-boy image lingers. It's a lot like the tripe another highly driven winner, Pat Riley, heard ad nauseam about his Armani suits and hair gel even as his Lakers were ringing up NBA titles and he was freaking out his teetering team during one NBA Finals against the archrival Celtics by dunking his head into a bucket of ice water, and then -- to underscore how badly the Lakers should want to win -- staying underwater an unreasonably long time. His players started exchanging nervous glances and wondering if he'd ever come up for air.

Brady is driven like that, too -- maybe more than ever this year.

"There's something different about this ballclub," longtime Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork says.

A lot is different. Brady is one of the few Patriots left from the teams that won three Super Bowls between 2001 and '04. He went through a serious knee surgery in 2008. He endured the shocking Super Bowl loss to the Giants after the 2007 Patriots finished the regular season 16-0. He's 33 years old now and has handled the transition from playboy quarterback to baby daddy who left his pregnant actress-fiancée Bridget Moynahan to, now, married guy who had another child with his supermodel wife.

Brady doesn't deny he can feel time flashing by now like scenery in a train window.

On Monday, he called the Pats' last title run in 2004 "really the last time we accomplished a goal … I think I realize when you have a really good team and you have a great opportunity, you've got to seize it."

This was supposed to be a re-tooling year for the Patriots. The defense was young and unproven. Bill Belichick has been stockpiling draft picks for a while now and unsentimentally casting off more old standbys. He jettisoned Randy Moss at midseason, and stood fast about playing half the year without Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins rather than cede to his contract demands. The Pats lost third-down security blanket Kevin Faulk to injury. Yet they still roar into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak, and Brady hasn't thrown an interception in a record 335 pass attempts (and counting).

Belichick is back to being the cryptic wizard pulling all the right the levers behind the curtain.

And Brady? Forget the tabloid hair musings, the wife, the incongruous fact that such a remorseless competitor was reared by a dad who spent seven years in a seminary studying to see if he wanted to be a priest.

Even the meanest no-neck tough guys in the league know who wears the pants in the NFL: Brady is back on top. The Pats are again the team to beat. And on the eve of the playoffs, here's the worst news the rest of the league has heard yet, straight from Brady's mouth:

"We haven't done anything yet."

He's pretty, all right. Pretty as a train wreck. And he's about to cause a 31-team pile-up and take it to the [expletive] house.

Can't say we haven't been warned.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.