Patriots need Tom Brady at his best

CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The pain was all over Archie Manning's clenched face last February, as clear as the Super Bowl mismatch staged on the MetLife Stadium field. The Seattle Seahawks had just reduced his son, an all-time great, to something resembling a sandlot quarterback, and the old scrambler and patriarch of a family with three Super Bowl MVP awards to its name was moved to make a stunning confession.

A familiar reporter approached Manning outside the Denver Broncos locker room and offered a word of consolation. "It's football," Archie said before pausing and letting the cold realities of Peyton's 43-8 defeat hang in the air.

"That's why I hate football."

This is what Seattle's punishing defenders do: They make you hate a game you love. They beat up your skill players, and your non-skill players, and they leave a card-carrying lifer like Archie Manning -- the star quarterback who married a homecoming queen -- wishing Walter Camp had never invented the sport in the first place.

Tom Brady saw what happened to Peyton while younger brother Eli was slumped in a luxury suite in his own ballpark as the same Seahawks who had shut Eli's Giants out in December 2013 were mocking whatever tips he'd passed on to big brother. Brady saw Seattle rattle Denver on the very first snap, forcing a safety.

Brady saw the Seahawks crush the most prolific offense in league history. He saw them silence all the noise about a second Peyton ring acting as a legacy game-changer.

So now Brady will take Peyton's place against a defense that New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount refuses to rank among the immortals. These Seahawks might not be the 1985 Chicago Bears, or even the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but yes, they are close enough.

That means Brady might have to play the game of his life to win his fourth Super Bowl title, and his first since Feb. 6, 2005. It's been 10 long years since he's won the big one, so muscle memory won't help him at University of Phoenix Stadium, where he suffered perhaps his most agonizing loss.

The Patriots were on a mission to finish as the NFL's first 19-0 team, and Asante Samuel dropped a near-certain interception against the New York Giants before Eli Manning made his great escape and David Tyree did what David Tyree did. In the wake of the Spygate scandal, Brady and Bill Belichick badly wanted to run the table to prove that the illegal taping of opposing coaches' signals had nothing to do with their pursuit of excellence.

"I wish that game would have ended differently," Brady said, "but we didn't make enough plays that day."

In the middle of an entirely different mess, this one involving 11 deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game victory over Indianapolis, Brady can't leave any plays on the field. On his flight to Arizona the other day, one of the Giants who beat the Patriots seven years ago, Shaun O'Hara, turned to a fellow passenger and said it would be fitting for Brady and Belichick to tie Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll on Sunday as the only quarterbacks/head coaches to win four Super Bowls.

"Doing it in Arizona," O'Hara said, "would really complete the cycle for them."

A 37-year-old Brady will have to play far better against the Seahawks than a 37-year-old Manning did in New Jersey. Some people believe the ongoing crisis will adversely impact his performance, if only because Brady was never before cast as the face of the evil empire (not with the hooded Belichick around). Some people believe the investigation will help Brady lock in and play with a rage that even the Seattle defense can't match. And some people believe it will have no effect on him at all.

"It's not like he's going to get interviewed after every play about how much pressure is in the football," Richard Sherman said. "He's going to go out there and play the game that he's been playing for years since he was a kid, and he's going to have a blast doing it."

Brady's old college coach at Michigan, Lloyd Carr, happens to believe his former student-athlete will play just as he did in erasing two 14-point deficits against Alabama in the Orange Bowl, and just as he did in erasing two 14-point deficits against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of this year's playoffs.

"I think Tom will be as motivated and as focused as he's ever been in his career," Carr said from his Ann Arbor home. "This has been an extraordinary week and a half for him since that game with the Colts, and he was hurt by the criticism. But as hard and distracting as it's been for Tom, he's always been an extremely focused and motivated guy, and I expect him to play his very best against Seattle."

Carr relayed the story of how Brady announced in Carr's office one day that he planned to transfer from Michigan. The coach told Brady that he'd be making a huge mistake, and that he should sleep on it and return with a final decision.

"So Tom comes back in the next day," Carr said, "leans forward toward my desk and says, 'Coach, I've decided I'm going to stay at Michigan. And I'm going to prove to you that I'm a great quarterback.'

"When things go really bad, most people cut and run. Tom didn't do the easy thing. He did what we all want our kids to do -- stick it out and fight your way through it."

For the record, Carr believes Brady wasn't involved in the deflating of those footballs. "I don't see Tom saying what he said without it being true," the old coach said. Either way, between now and the day the league announces the results of its investigation, the kid who was the 199th pick in the draft out of Michigan will become the first quarterback to start in six Super Bowls.

"I never thought I'd play in one," Brady said.

Really, it's one of the craziest stories in league history. "The guy is going to go down as probably the best player to play the game," said Darrelle Revis. "The best quarterback to play the game."

Of course, everyone was saying the same things about Manning before he ran smack into the Legion of Boom.

But Brady is in a better physical place; he didn't have to overcome four neck surgeries late in his prime. Despite the apocalyptic forecasts after his Week 4 flameout in Kansas City, an intense fitness program has actually made him a bit more athletic and flexible than he was as a younger man.

Can he hold up against the league's fiercest defense? Can he weather the kind of pressure that knocked him off his game the last time he stepped inside University of Phoenix Stadium with a chance to win it all?

"We're happy and privileged that we've had a chance to come back to Arizona and close the order and do what we have to do," said his owner, Robert Kraft. "[Brady's] driven. He's watched tape of every one of Seattle's games, and I don't think fans understand how hard he prepares and how he takes care of himself. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't have a great day Sunday."

Brady has no choice but to have a great day Sunday, even if Kraft singled him out as the only player burdened by Deflategate. The Patriots can't afford their franchise player to be weighed down by this case, or by the lingering effects of the cold he's been fighting this week.

They need Tom Brady to be Tom Brady in every way. If he isn't up to it Sunday, Seattle's defense will likely leave the quarterback's father, Tom Sr., the same way it left Archie Manning -- hating the game he loves.