FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Take a trip in the Way Back Machine, the date Feb. 3, 2002, the destination the Superdome in New Orleans.
Moments before the New England Patriots are to play the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, a young Tom Brady is seen head-butting his back-up, Drew Bledsoe, in the tunnel leading to the field, a scream of excitement accompanying each bonk.
Now, nearly 12 years later, nothing much has changed.
Brady, now 36, has worked hard to refine his game to the point where he is recognized as one of the greatest to ever play the position. His game preparation and film study is legendary. But he still gets excited for each game. And he still shows it with an occasional pre-game head-butt.
“I’m a pretty emotional player,” he said. “All the guys are emotional. It’s an emotional game. You’ve got to bring it.”
And this week those emotions will be especially high.
The Patriots will play the Andrew Luck-led Indianapolis Colts in an AFC Divisional round playoff game Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. And if you can’t get excited for a game like this, well, maybe you ought to be playing in another city.
“It’s incredible to play in this,” said Brady. “These are the moments that you dream about, to be in the NFL playoffs and you’ve got a chance, along with (seven) other teams to be the last team standing.
“It’s why we work hard. Every guy puts a lot out there. You sacrifice a lot of things … I don’t think you take those things for granted. You cherish those and understand the opportunity that’s ahead.”
There is a distinct difference in game preparation this week, and in every playoff week.
“There’s no, like, âHey we’ll get them tomorrow, we’ll talk about the corrections on Monday,’ ” said Brady. “You got one opportunity to get it right and that’s all you can ask for as an athlete. The great part is once that ball is kicked off, none of that other (stuff) matters. It’s just the players who will ultimately go out and decide who wins the game.”
Brady was asked what advice he could the younger players making their first playoff appearance.
Just play well, he said.
“There’s a first time really for everyone,” he said. “I don’t think that can be used as an advantage or an excuse. My first time in 2001 I played in a playoff game and we did pretty well.
“The difference is there’s no second chances. You’ve got to get it right.”
Maybe it’s because Brady is closer to the end of his career than the beginning that he appreciates these playoff games even more.
He certainly prepares that way.
“It’s business as usual for Tom,” said Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots stellar defensive end/linebacker. “He’s an intense guy. I think he’s just trying to relay that to everyone else.
“It’s just, you do your work now, you put in the time now, you study the tape and you practice hard now so when the game comes you’ve already done it three times in a week so you go out and just play and have fun. And that’s what football is all about, flying around and playing with your teammates.”
That’s what Brady loves, that’s what gets him excited.
He lives for these games, when the season is on the line. And he usually comes through.
The Patriots have won five AFC championships and three Super Bowl titles with Brady and Bill Belichick calling the shots. Twice Brady has been a Super Bowl MVP. He has a 17-7 record in the playoffs, the most playoff wins for a quarterback in NFL history.
What he does, and how he does it, certainly go noticed by his peers.
“He has definitely set the standard for success at the quarterback position,” said Luck, who is establishing a nifty reputation of his own. “The way he handles himself, watching from afar, the competitive nature and basically all the right things he does. Yeah, I guess he is a barometer and he is the standard.”
Brady was asked Tuesday in his press conference if he relished proving himself against the NFL’s young gun quarterbacks, like Luck.
His answer told you everything you need to know about what is important to him.
“My motivation is pretty simple,” said Brady. “I just try to win.”
Winning, Brady has said many times in the past, is fun; losing, he has said many times, is not.
“I try to be part of a reason why we’re successful,” said Brady. “That means doing my job and trying to be the best I can for the team. It really doesn’t have anything to do with anybody on the other team or what their motivation might be. I mean, I think to be a professional athlete and to play at this high level with this level of competition, winning is the only thing that’s important. That’s the one goal, the one objective, that I’ve had for a long time.”
And that’s what gets him really excited.