Portland Press Herald

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — John Harbaugh had a good laugh when media members started saying in October that Tom Brady was no longer an elite quarterback. The New England Patriots had just been thwacked 41-14 by the Kansas City Chiefs to drop to 2-2 and Brady was struggling.

Well, Brady responded and finished with another strong season, improving from last year his completion percentage (64.1, up from 60.5), touchdown passes (33, from 25) and quarterback rating (97.4, from 87.3) while throwing fewer interceptions (nine, down from 11).

“I was very amused by that,” said Harbaugh, who brings his 11-6 Baltimore Ravens into Gillette Stadium to play Brady and the 12-4 Patriots in an AFC divisional round playoff game at 4:35 p.m. Saturday. “I’m sure other people are holding out hope that someday that happens, but it doesn’t look like it’s any time soon. He’s still a great, great player.”

But if the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in Brady’s career, he’s going to have to play even better than that.

For all his regular-season statistics and heroics, for his two MVP trophies and three Super Bowl rings, Brady has not been a great quarterback in the playoffs in recent years – especially against the Ravens, who have twice eliminated the Patriots from the playoffs since 2010.

The 37-year-old Brady holds the NFL record for most playoff victories by a quarterback with 18 – but he won his first 10 playoff starts. Since then, he’s 8-8, his ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions has gone down and his completion percentage has slipped under 60 in the last two postseasons.

It’s closing in on 10 years since the Patriots beat Philadelphia 24-21 on Feb. 6, 2005, for their third Super Bowl championship in four years. And while they’ve returned to the Super Bowl twice more — no small feat — they haven’t been able to close the deal, losing both times to the New York Giants.

While Brady says he wants to play into his 40s, even he seems to realize that the clock is ticking. He became reflective in a press conference last week, saying, “You’ve got to play your biggest at the biggest moments against the best teams in the toughest conditions. You’ve got to see what you’re made of.”

Nobody questions Brady’s desire or work ethic. Whenever his talent has been questioned — from the time he was selected in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft to his slow start early this season — he has responded by elevating his game to its highest level.

He is driven each week, he said, by his teammates. “Those guys work really hard and I never want to be the reason why we lose a game,” said Brady.

When Brady first took over from Drew Bledsoe in the 2001 season, his job was to not lose the game. He was simply a game manager and he did it well.

Brady was outstanding in his first three postseasons, going 9-0 while winning three Super Bowl titles. He completed 63 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.

He won his 10th consecutive playoff game in the 2005 wildcard round with an outstanding game. The Patriots beat Jacksonville 28-3 and Brady was 15-for-27 for 201 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. His quarterback rating as 116.4. So that gave him 10 victories, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions.

But over his last 16 playoff games, the Patriots are 8-8. And Brady has been inconsistent.

He’s had some magnificent games: 26-of-28 passing for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions with a rating of 141.4 in a 31-20 divisional round victory over Jacksonville in 2010; 26-of-34 for 363 yards, an NFL record-tying six touchdowns and one interception with a rating of 137.6 over the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos in the 2011 divisional round; 25-of-40 for 344 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions and a rating of 115.0 in a 41-28 divisional round win over Houston in 2012.

But he’s had some clunkers too, most notably against Baltimore.

When Baltimore beat the Patriots 33-14 in the 2009 wild card game at Gillette, Brady was 23-of-42 for 154 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions and a rating of 49.1. He also lost a fumble when sacked by Terrell Suggs on the Patriots third play of the game leading to a Baltimore touchdown that gave it a 14-0 lead.

And when the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the 2012 AFC title game, Brady was 29-for-54 for 320 yards with a touchdown, two interceptions and a rating of 78.4.

He also has thrown six interceptions in two home victories against the Chargers, with ratings of 66.4 and 57.6 in those games.

Overall, in his last 16 playoff games, Brady has completed 62 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. But his completion percentage has been down in each of the last two seasons – 57.4 in 2012 and 58.7 in 2013.

Not surprisingly — and more evidence of Brady’s value to the team’s playoff success — over that stretch, he had his two best playoffs in the Patriots’ runs to the Super Bowl during the 2007 and 2011 seasons.

He completed 70.6 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and three interceptions and a rating of 93.0 in 2007, when the Patriots took an undefeated record into the Super Bowl. In 2011 he completed 67.6 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns, four interceptions and a rating of 100.4.

Perhaps because of that past success, Brady said he doesn’t feel any additional pressure this time of year.

“I think we all realize the importance of the game,” he said. “There’s no game next week if you don’t play well.”

And if the Patriots are going to have another game after Saturday, are going to have another shot at a Super Bowl title, No. 12 is going to have to be better than he has been in recent years.

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