Ranking Tom Brady’s top 10 playoff games: Will Super Bowl LV be added next?

  • Covered Patriots since 1997
  • Joined ESPN in 2009

The number 45 has been Tom Brady’s target. His long-stated goal has been to play at least until that age.

When Brady leads the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7 (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS), he will hit that number in a different fashion: It will be his 45th career playoff game.

45!

That is almost three full extra seasons of football.

Brady’s performance in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game doesn’t rank among his top statistical postseason gems; it was his first playoff game with three interceptions since the 2009 wild-card round (a blowout loss to the Ravens). But one thing that is clear this season is how Brady’s impact on the Buccaneers has gone well beyond stats.

Coach Bruce Arians pointed to the George Halas Trophy during the team’s postgame celebration Sunday and said of Brady, “The belief he gave everybody in this organization, that this could be done; it only took one man.”

In that sense, Brady’s work over the past three weeks — as a leader in the Buccaneers’ solid complementary play that weaves offense, defense and special teams — is some of his all-time best, especially when considering it’s his first year in Tampa and the season is being played during a pandemic.

Brady is now 33-11 in playoff games and ranking his best playoff performances often sparks debate on what should be prioritized — level of competition, statistics, clutch play, impact on franchise, etc.

A top-10 list also provides an ever-evolving road map for a trip down Memory Lane, one that probably will continue to be updated into the future as long as Brady continues to defy Father Time:

10t. Super Bowl XXXIX: Patriots 24, Eagles 21

Date: Feb. 6, 2005

Brady finished 23-of-33 for 236 yards with two touchdowns (one to linebacker-turned-tight-end Mike Vrabel) as the Patriots’ defense ultimately held off the Eagles when it counted. Brady’s favorite target was receiver Deion Branch, who had 11 receptions for 133 yards to earn MVP honors.

10t. NFC Divisional Round: Bucs 30, Saints 20

Date: Jan. 17, 2021

Brady’s excellence didn’t jump off the stat sheet (18-of-33 for 199 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT), but this performance sneaks into the top 10, in part, because of how it reflects his impact on the franchise. The Buccaneers had been soundly beaten by the Saints twice in the regular season, got off to a slow start in the game, and yet Brady’s mental toughness to grind it out against a tough Saints defense was championship-level quality that wouldn’t allow his team to buckle in the moment in overcoming deficits of 6-0, 13-10, and 20-13. Sometimes the best performances — which capitalize on sudden-change opportunities to complement a ferocious defense — go beyond the stats.

9. Super Bowl LII: Eagles 41, Patriots 33

Date: Feb. 4, 2018

Brady was strip-sacked while attempting to lead a final drive to possibly win the game, which led to disappointment, but he was brilliant throughout: 28-of-48 for 505 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. One of the plays he’d like to have back was an incompletion when he was open as the intended receiver, which hurt even more after the Eagles converted a similar play for a touchdown.

8. AFC Championship: Patriots 24, Jaguars 20

Date: Jan. 21, 2018

This wasn’t Brady’s best effort from start to finish, but he was magical in the fourth quarter in rallying the team from a 10-point deficit. Brady finished 26-of-38 for 290 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, a performance that was even more impressive considering he played with 12 stitches on his right hand as a result of a significant cut suffered five days prior at practice.

7. Super Bowl XXXVI: Patriots 20, Rams 17

Date: Feb. 3, 2002

From a bottom-line stats perspective, this game is closer to the bottom of the list (16-of-27 for 145 yards, one TD, no INTs), but it gets a bump from a clutch standpoint. While analyst John Madden was telling the TV audience the Patriots should take a knee and play for overtime, Brady — then in his second NFL season and his first as a starter — helped lead the Patriots to the winning field goal at the final gun.

6. AFC Championship: Patriots 36, Steelers 17

Date: Jan. 22, 2017

The Steelers’ zone defense was no match for Brady, who was 32-of-42 for 384 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady masterfully manipulated the D before the snap, and his accuracy was pinpoint on almost every throw. Chris Hogan (nine catches, 180 yards, two TDs) and Julian Edelman (eight catches, 118 yards, TD) were the top targets. This wasn’t the first time Brady delivered a dagger to the Steelers, as Belichick said on the NFL 100 All-Time Team segment that he viewed Brady’s 60-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch in the AFC title game Jan. 23, 2004, as one of the other best throws of his career.

5. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Patriots 32, Panthers 29

Date: Feb. 1, 2004

A game that was scoreless with inside of four minutes left in the second quarter became a shootout the rest of the way, with Brady finishing 32-of-48 for 354 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. Similar to his first Super Bowl, it required a winning drive in the final minute, with this one aided by a Carolina kickoff that went out of bounds and allowed the Patriots to start the drive on their 40.

4. AFC Championship: Patriots 37, Chiefs 31, OT

Date: Jan. 20, 2019

Converting three different third-and-10 plays on the winning touchdown drive in overtime was the definition of clutch, as Brady finished 30-of-46 for 348 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. One of the picks, from the Chiefs’ 1-yard line, could have been costly, but Brady’s mental toughness to put it behind him was a significant aspect of his epic effort. That this game was played in Arrowhead Stadium, in front of a raucous Chiefs crowd, adds to why it was so impressive.

3. Super Bowl XLIX: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

Date: Feb. 1, 2015

It took Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception to seal the victory, but Brady was remarkable in the fourth quarter against one of the NFL’s best defenses to help the Patriots storm back from a 10-point deficit. He was 37-of-50 for 328 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions, and earned MVP honors. Then he gave the truck he won as MVP to Butler.

2. Divisional Round: Patriots 35, Ravens 31

Date: Jan. 10, 2015

Brady was 33-of-50 for 367 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception, and he led a furious second-half comeback from 14 points down aided by an unusual tactic in which the Patriots declared eligible receivers ineligible. Brady added a 4-yard touchdown run that he capped off with an emphatic spike, and then his fire transferred to the postgame interview room when he countered criticism from Ravens coach John Harbaugh by telling him to study the rulebook.

1. Super Bowl LI: Patriots 34, Falcons 28, OT

Date: Feb. 5, 2017

Trailing 28-3 in the third quarter, in part because Brady threw a pick-six, the Patriots needed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history to pull this one off. Brady was sensational in the second half and overtime, ultimately finishing 43-of-62 for 466 yards, with two touchdowns and the one interception. He was sacked five times, which reflected his toughness in taking a pounding and not relenting. Making the victory even more emotional was the presence of his mother, Galynn, who was attending her first game of the season because she had been battling breast cancer.

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