Tom Brady is the ultimate playoff quarterback.
Of course, Brady's been great in the regular season, too—he's averaged 4,072 yards and 30 touchdowns in each of the 11 full seasons he's played. Brady's started and won 136 regular-season games; he's lost just 39. If Brady's Patriots had lost in the first round every year, he'd still be an all-time great.
Instead, he's the winningest playoff quarterback in NFL history.
What makes Brady so great in the playoffs? And what makes him so much better than everyone else?
Records and Stats
Let's get the numbers out of the way.
Brady's sitting on a pile of quarterback postseason records: most games (23), most wins (17), most wins with the same head coach (17), most attempts (833), most completions (524), most game-winning drives (7), most consecutive wins (10), most touchdowns in a single half (5) and most touchdowns in a single game (tied with two others at six).
Per USA Today, Brady also has the postseason record for most consecutive completed passes (16), and single-game completion percentage (26-of-28, 92.8 percent).
Brady's 17-6 record in the playoffs is the best ever. His record is better than Joe Montana's 16-7, better than Terry Bradshaw's 14-5, better than Ben Roethlisberger's 10-4 or Eli Manning's 8-3. Only Bart Starr (9-1) and Jim Plunkett (8-2) can boast better playoff winning percentages out of at least 10 games.
Where Brady's not first, he's close. He's fourth in career postseason passing yards (5,629), third in career passing touchdowns (41) and tied for second in comebacks (4).
Brady's made the playoffs in every year he's started, save his second year as a starter, 2002 (when the 9-7 Patriots lost a three-way tie for the AFC East crown). Oh, and he's won three Super Bowls in five appearances.
But how does he do it? What exactly about the way Brady plays makes him exceptional when it counts the most?
The first big factor in Brady's success is his poise. Whether it was due to his battle for playing time at Michigan, his low expectations as a sixth-round draft pick, or his own unflappable nature, Brady always plays with a calm, level presence.
The man who owned the postseason win record before Brady was Montana, and Montana played the same way. They called Montana "Joe Cool," with good reason. Montana's no-fuss execution of head coach Bill Walsh's offense brought the 49ers four titles.
Watch 24-year-old Tom Brady, in his first year as a starter, lead a Super Bowl-winning drive against the 14-point favorite St. Louis Rams with only 1:21 left on the clock:
Brady never panics, or even looks bothered. When the pass rush closes in, he finds the open man. When the Rams blitz the house, he gets away from the pressure just long enough to wisely throw it away. He makes great decisions, makes good throws and calmly adjust on the move...like he wasn't a sixth-round pick making his 17th career start.
The drive begins with John Madden saying he'd play for overtime, and ends with Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri booting the last-second game winner.
Even the best veteran quarterbacks can collapse under the pressure of the Super Bowl. Brady, with no experience and the world stacked against him, was as cool as it gets.
During a recent look at whether defense really does win championships, I identified two major trends with teams that succeed in the playoffs. The first big trend involves sacks—teams that win the sack battle, win playoff games.
In the early years, Brady had the benefit of playing with one of the league's best defenses. But from the beginning, he's helped his defense out by being incredibly difficult to sack. He does this with outstanding pocket awareness and management.
Check out Brady's touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez in Week 1 this season.
Despite heavy pressure from the edge and up the middle, Brady's eyes never leave his targets downfield. He moves from side to side, almost imperceptibly, hop-steps forward past the defensive line and releases a perfect strike before the linebacker can get to him.
Brady is better than anyone in the NFL at feeling pressure without seeing pressure, and it lets him pick apart defenses trying to turn up the heat.
The second big trend with successful playoff teams is a great turnover ratio. Quarterbacks' touchdown-to-interception ratio is a huge part of a team's overall turnover ratio, so quarterbacks who score without losing the ball are lethal in the playoffs.
Here's a scatter plot showing the playoff win percentages of recent quarterbacks with lots of playoff experience, regressed against their playoff touchdown-to-interception ratio:
With all the factors that go into wins and losses, few stats describing a single player's performance will correlate so strongly with wins. This is a huge factor in playoff success; over more playoff games than anyone, Brady's consistently had great decision-making—and consistently won.
The great quarterbacks who've famously struggled in the playoffs (Kelly, Marino) have struggled to throw more touchdowns than interceptions. The great playoff quarterbacks, like Brady and Montana, are tightly clustered together up where great touchdown-to-interception ratios meet great win percentages.
In the playoffs, Brady's touchdown-to-interception ratio is 41:20. That would be very good in the regular season. But, in the playoffs, against the best teams in the league, it's outstanding.
Brady's ratio in the Super Bowl is even better; Brady's thrown nine touchdowns in Super Bowls but only two interceptions. No wonder he has so many rings.
The Present and Future
Brady and the Patriots are on a bit of a postseason cold streak. Brady started his postseason career with a record 10 straight wins before taking his first loss. But from 2009-2011, Brady and the Patriots went a pedestrian 2-3. In fact, Brady's on a two-Super Bowl losing streak, dropping the title games of the 2007 and 2011 seasons.
His stat line in Super Bowl XLVI looked Bradyish enough (28-of-43 for 283 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions), but he started the game with a bizarre intentional grounding penalty and wasn't as efficient as we've come to expect.
What he's done, though, can't be undone. His accomplishments will stand the test of time, even if his last few seasons don't match his first few.
In one sense, this season's AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl are vitally important to Brady's legacy. If he plays well and the Patriots win in both, Brady's name will be chiseled in granite as the best playoff quarterback ever.
In another sense, though, these games don't matter at all. Even if Brady throws five picks this weekend and the Patriots lose by 30, he'll still, rightly, be remembered as the ultimate NFL playoff quarterback.