EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dressed in a dark turtleneck and slacks, his arms folded across his chest, Tom Brady stood in the middle of the New England Patriots' locker room making small talk with a small circle of guests.
"What a day," the quarterback told the group. He would pose for a picture, lean over to kiss a woman on her cheek, and tell a departing teammate, Marcus Cannon, that he'd played a good game. Brady appeared to be hosting his own little cocktail party, or assuming the role of the team's good-natured maître d'. He was acting nothing like the stone-cold killer he has been on game days for 16 years and counting.
He'd just secured his 200th NFL victory (postseason included), tying Peyton Manning's record with a 22-17 victory over the New York Jets, and by late afternoon next Sunday, after a home game against the Rams, he'll probably stand alone as the winningest quarterback of all time. And if you were paying attention during his latest conquest of the Jets, you understood why Pick No. 199 (of the 2000 draft) didn't remain stuck on victory No. 199 for another week.
Brady had brought his C-plus game to MetLife Stadium, and for good reason: He was playing on one leg, playing without the injured Rob Gronkowski (knocked out early because of a back injury), and, at 39, playing against his tick, tick, ticking biological clock. He'd won an emotional homecoming game against San Francisco in Week 11, flown back across the country, and missed a couple of practices because of his achy right knee before facing a divisional opponent with a history of hitting him hard in defeat.
"I'm happy the week is over," Brady said. "It was a long week."
It was a longer week for the home team, of course, because Brady still found a way to beat the Jets for the 22nd time in 28 regular-season starts. Even though Brady was off for most of the game, stunning longtime admirers by sailing balls over open receivers, everyone in the house knew what was coming after the Jets wasted a possession while holding a one-point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Brady took the ball at his own 17 with 5:04 to play, and the feeling inside MetLife Stadium reminded of the feeling inside Madison Square Garden in the 1990s when Michael Jordan took the ball in the closing minutes. It was game, set, overmatched. Brady faced a fourth-and-4 with 2:53 left, and the older Jets fans in their Joe Namath jerseys and the young ones in their Darrelle Revis jerseys had to know, deep down, that their 3-7 team wasn't about to stop the singular figure who has tormented them like no other.
"If we don't make that play," Brady said, "it's hard to win the game."
He made the quick pass to James White, whose dive for the first down the quarterback described as "a championship-type play." On the next snap Brady found Chris Hogan wide open down the middle, and on the play after that he found Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone for the second time, both touchdowns coming at Revis' expense.
In the end the considerable number of Patriots fans in the building were heard chanting Brady's name. The right-minded Jets fans who headed for the parking lots? They had to feel like the right-minded fans of those bygone Knicks teams that could never beat Jordan when it mattered most -- frustrated by the dominance, but respectful of the sustained greatness.
Truth is, Brady at 39 is much better than Jordan at 39, in the colors of the Washington Wizards, if only because Brady's position demands far less in the athleticism and foot speed departments. But still, the man has thrown 18 touchdown passes against one interception this season. In his own way, Brady is every bit the freak of nature that Gronk is.
So even the Jets suspected what was about to go down in the final minutes Sunday. "You definitely don't want to put Tom in those situations," said Revis, who was Brady's teammate during New England's last championship run.
"I felt good," Brandon Marshall said of the Jets' fourth-quarter lead, "but I knew that Tom Brady has that thing where it kicks in. He's a special player. He's one of the best to ever do it. There's never a time where he's out of it."
Just look at the divisional record books. More than three dozen men have started at least one game for the Jets, Bills and Dolphins since Brady became a starter three weeks into the 2001 season, and only one -- Chad Pennington -- has won an AFC East title (Pennington won for the Jets in 2002, and for Miami in 2008, when Brady effectively missed the entire year). Brady has outlasted more Jets quarterbacks than Fidel Castro outlasted U.S. presidents. He just became the fifth NFL passer to throw for at least 60,000 yards, which means he has doubled Namath's career output -- plus another 5,000 yards.
The man who drafted him, Bill Belichick, is usually the last man in any room interested in arranging an in-season parade for Brady or anyone else. But after calling his guy "a good player" who has "great mental toughness," Belichick embraced a question about the historical magnitude of Brady's 200th victory, citing the quarterback's semi-legal, fourth-down head fake that drew the Jets offside as an example of his intangible gifts.
The 200 Ws, Belichick said, "says a lot about him and what he's been able to do for this franchise. That's what it's all about. That's what a quarterback's job is, to win. He's done a great job of that. I think today is a good example of not turning the ball over, some good situational plays that came up that don't show up in the stat sheet, like the fourth-and-1 offside ... that are plays that you need for your team to win. Tom does a great job of that. He's as good a situational football player as I've ever been around. The quarterback's job is to win. He's won a lot. That's good. I'm glad he's our quarterback."
Along with his coach, Brady has been the driving force behind New England's run of 16 consecutive winning seasons, an absurd streak in a league that uses the schedule, the draft, the salary cap and free agency to protect the virtues of parity and to prevent franchises from, you know, running off 16 consecutive winning seasons. Take a quick survey of last season's one-hit wonders, the Panthers and Cardinals. They were a combined 28-4 in 2015; they're a combined 8-13-1 in 2016.
It's hard -- really hard -- to win consistently in the NFL. And even in a season he opened with his four-game Deflategate suspension, Brady has made it look easy. He completed passes to eight receivers against the Jets, none named Gronkowski, and found six of them for at least three receptions.
When it was over, Brady stood before a microphone and engaged in full postgame Bradyspeak. He addressed his staggering individual accomplishments only in a team context, and swore the injury he played through was no more debilitating than the injuries a lot of Patriots played through.
"You just do the best you can do," the quarterback said. "And I'll try to do the same this week."
He will conform to the unforgiving diet designed by his fitness guy, Alex Guerrero, who sat at Brady's locker after Sunday's game, and he will keep raging against the notion that a 39-year-old quarterback should be in decline. Tom Brady is going to be Tom Brady. For those fans of the Jets, Bills and Dolphins desperately waiting for him to grow old, here's a little advice:
Don't hold your breath.