HOUSTON -- Even in a time of legitimate doubt, if not desperation, Tom Brady did not ask for too much. He needed only a couple of his playmakers on the field Sunday night, not all of them, to kill a two-game losing streak and remind people he remains the most dangerous player in a sport that temporarily belongs to a quarterback on the other side of the postseason draw.
Cam Newton is the league's MVP after 13 games; the fact he remains unbeaten and does so much more damage in the ground game offsets Brady's superior passing numbers, at least on this scorecard. But if the debate centers around which man is the better bet between now and the final whistle of Super Bowl 50, the 38-year-old quarterback of the New England Patriots or the 26-year-old quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, Brady wins that vote in a landslide.
It's an exercise in experience and simple math. Brady has won 21 postseason games to Newton's one, and a combined 10 conference championship games and Super Bowls to Newton's none.
This isn't to say Brady was in perfect late January/early February form against the Houston Texans, who fielded a roster of enough old Patriots coaches and players to give the quarterback a this-is-your-life moment he seemed to enjoy -- at least when he wasn't getting smacked around late (by J.J. Watt) and on time (by Jadeveon Clowney). But with Rob Gronkowski back in his own version of beast mode, Brady found him for a 45-yard tone-setter on their first series and the touchdown pass that mattered most, the one in the final seconds of the first half that gave New England a 17-6 lead in what would be a 27-6 victory and a hard exclamation point on an overwhelmingly hopeful Sunday.
The Patriots clinched yet another playoff berth and slid back into the No. 1 seeding position in the AFC after Denver and Cincinnati lost at home, and after Andy Dalton went down with a broken thumb. Though they aren't the type to do an end zone dance over a potential rival's physical misfortune, the take-on-all-comers Patriots understand that AJ McCarron isn't at Alabama anymore and isn't likely to lead the Bengals to the playoff victories Dalton never secured for them.
"I guess Tom Brady was in the same situation when he had the opportunity," McCarron said in Cincinnati.
In fact, Brady replaced the injured Drew Bledsoe early in what was shaping up to be a bleak 2001 season, and out of left field pieced together a career for the ages. Brady arrived at NRG Stadium looking to avoid his first three-game losing streak since 2002, a staggering run of success in a league built around the principles of parity, and avoid that three-game losing streak Brady did.
He rolled right and turned upfield on that first Patriots possession, throwing against his momentum across the field to the returning Gronkowski, whose right knee gave out on him only two weeks ago in Denver. "I kind of got flushed," Brady said. "I knew where he was heading, and he had a linebacker on him. I thought I'd give him a chance."
Gronkowski couldn't even see Brady as he threw it, and then temporarily lost the ball in the stadium lights. Didn't matter. The long connection set up Brady's touchdown pass to Keshawn Martin -- delivered before Watt ignored his broken hand and leveled the quarterback with an illegal and dirty shot -- and warmed up the tight end for the dagger, a 1-yard jump ball with 14 seconds left in the half.
"He's a huge influence on what we do offensively," Brady said of Gronk, "and he really toughed it out. So I'm proud of him. It was great to have him out there. ... Offensive football is always trust and anticipation, and certainly there's nobody that I trust more than Gronk."
Other than himself, of course. Brady could summon two sportswriters down from the press box, line them up in the slots and still find a way to pick apart a defense on his way to nailing down another round of playoff games in Foxborough, where it will be awfully difficult for the Daltons/McCarrons and Osweilers/Mannings to prevail.
No, Brady hasn't been the same untouchable quarterback since Edelman went down last month against the New York Giants; he has been holding the ball longer, waiting for lesser receivers to break free and absorbing punishment no man in his late 30s should be asked to absorb.
But after taking the field with the knowledge that Denver and Cincinnati had lost, Brady wasn't the only one who knew he had to seize this opportunity. "The fewer games there are," Bill Belichick said, "the more important they are." The Patriots coach described the practice week as a long one with "a lot of extra work, a lot of extra meetings." It was Belichick's way of saying he wanted this one, badly.
His defense did its part on two levels: The secondary held DeAndre Hopkins, superstar, to his least productive night, and the front pounded Brian Hoyer, former Patriots backup, who was overmatched again in the first-stringer's presence.
Brady found Gronkowski for a 35-yarder in the fourth quarter and ran 13 yards for another first down on the following play, inspiring the Patriots fans in the crowd to chant his name. He finished with 22 completions in 30 attempts for 226 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
"Great player, all-time great player," Houston coach Bill O'Brien, former offensive coordinator in New England, said of Brady. "I've said it a thousand times -- best quarterback of all time."
Now the greatest of them all gets Tennessee at home, and the Jets and Dolphins on the road, while Denver travels to Pittsburgh before hosting Cincinnati. Soon enough, Edelman will return to the lineup, the equivalent of adding a first-round pick before the tournament (even though, you know, Edelman was once drafted in the seventh round).
Let's face it: Patriots fans should start making dinner reservations around Fisherman's Wharf.
Will Brady ultimately surpass his idol, Joe Montana, and match the likes of Bart Starr, Magic Johnson, Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant with title No. 5 at the end of a season currently owned by another quarterback, the 13-0 Newton? Maybe, maybe not. But Newton will have to survive the ominous NFC challenge presented by the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, who is playing lights out, while Brady faces no such gathering threat in the AFC.
So if Newton is the regular-season MVP, Brady remains the regular-season-and-beyond MDP -- most dangerous player -- and Sunday night represented just another small reminder why.