Playoffs are filled with good quarterbacks, but there's still only one Tom Brady

January 05, 2014 - 10:49 pm

There is no one way to win an NFL playoff game, just one thing you need: a quarterback.

But you already know that. You're a smart football fan. You've watched Tom Brady for the past 13 years. You've seen how he changed the fortunes of the Patriots organization. And, you might even be screaming right now that it isn't just the quarterback. After all, ownership and head coaching are the other prongs of the trident every team needs to succeed.

But while ownership sets the right tone for the building, and coaching decides on the right system, in today's NFL it is the quarterback who wins playoff games. Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised that the four best quarterbacks in the AFC playoffs are the four left standing after Wildcard Weekend.

The Patriots finished the year 12-4 with a first-round bye for many reasons. They are talented, deep, and well-prepared. They have an excellent scheme and a quarterback who knows how to dissect any defense and often makes up for whatever inadequacies his teammates possess. And while all of those qualities led them to where they are, it is the final one that will make the difference from the point forward.

The remaining eight teams in the NFL are all pretty good. What's more, the talent on each team is fairly evenly distributed. Some have slightly better receivers, others have a better running back. Some have a better offensive line and others have a more disruptive defense. But they all have something they can count on and something else they are trying to hide. They are the best eight teams but they are all flawed. And because they are all so evenly matched, each game will come down to a few key plays. If there are seven games left to play, I'd guess those seven games will be decided by the results of some 25 key plays. Of those 25 plays, I'd bet that in 22 of them, the quarterback is the biggest factor. Said another way, I'd bet that the quarterback is directly responsible for nearly 90 percent of the outcome of each game.

Think of Andrew Luck picking up the fumble for the touchdown, running for a key third down conversion late and throwing the 64-yard bomb to T.Y. Hilton for the winning score. Think of Alex Smith coming up one pass short. Think of Colin Kaepernick's third down scramble to set up the winning kick and of the obvious discrepancy between Phillip Rivers and Andy Dalton. We have long been obsessed with quarterbacks, but with parity so prevalent even among the league's elite teams, the importance of a quarterback who can make the critical plays late in the game has gone to a new level.

And that brings us to Tom Brady and the Patriots chances against the Colts this Saturday.

All year, I have argued that the Patriots are at their best when they are offensively balanced. I wrote about it before the season and my thoughts haven't changed much since then. I thought this year's team was at its best in the final two games where they ran more often than they threw. For a team that had success running the ball and a young, inconsistent receiving corps, I think it's shocking that they attempted more passes this season (628) than in 2007 (578). To be fair, some of those numbers are inflated by the need to come roaring back after bad first halves against Denver, Cleveland, Houston and Miami.

But the point stands: this team is better when Josh McDaniels remembers he has a running game.

Still, to advocate for balance should not be confused with taking Tom Brady for granted. In fact, I think it is a respect for Brady's ability that (ironically) makes me want to see less of him.

Establishing a running game is so important because of its ancillary benefits. Not only do you usually gain positive yardage on a running play, you wear out opponents, make third down conversions easier, and set up play action passes. Furthermore, because a good running game gives you multiple options near the goal line, it also helps your red zone effectiveness. And for a Patriots team that has lost its best red zone threat, that may be the most important factor. They need to convert their red zone opportunities and a balanced attack gives them the best chances to do so.

The Patriots are capable of beating any of the seven teams they could face in the next few weeks. A commitment to a balanced attack should allow them to keep games close until the final minutes. And with games increasingly being decided by a few key plays late, they have the ultimate weapon in Brady.

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