Well, well, well. As it turns out, Tom Brady wasn’t manufactured in a secret lab by Bill Belichick. He wasn’t a system quarterback, plugged in by an evil coaching genius to play precisely as programmed. All of Brady’s victories and championships in New England can’t be attributed to a diabolical conspiracy of cheaters. 

After 20 years of unprecedented success as the quarterback Belichick’s Patriots, Brady, 43, took his talents to the Gulf of Mexico this season. A free agent. A free man. The Old Man and the Sea. Starting over with a sorry franchise and a volatile head coach, just before the sun set on his brilliant career. 

It was risky business for Brady. He wouldn’t win games with his name. Brady’s six Super Bowl rings couldn’t be traded in for victories. Not with this historically mediocre entity. Since winning the Super Bowl to cap the 2002 season, the Bucs had made it to the postseason twice in 17 years, with only five winning records, through 2019. Tampa Bay hadn’t reached the playoffs since 2007 or won a postseason game since blowing out the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl 37. That Supe was played on Jan. 26, 2003. 

But Tom Brady becomes Tampa Tom and … boom.

Tampa Bay’s first trip to the NFL’s final-four weekend since the ’02 season.

Brady would team with HC Bruce Arians, an innovative offensive mind who talks loud, struggles with his health, and tends to flame out. Arians fizzled in Arizona, took a year off (2018), and made an uneasy return to coaching at Tampa Bay in 2019. Before recruiting Brady, Arians was 22-25-1 in his previous three seasons as coaching. 

These Bucs were no dynasty. Arians was no Belichick. And Brady’s transition was complicated by Arians’ stubborn insistence on running his own offense instead of changing it to make Brady more comfortable. 

“It’s not lack of trust — it’s lack of continuity within the offense, of the whole picture,” Arians told reporters who pressed him on Brady’s difficulty in adapting to a new scheme. Arians later added this zinger: “We’ve got the guys open. We’ve just missed ’em.” 

The “Age-Related Decline” stories began to circulate, right around the time the Bucs lost three of four to fall to 7-5. 

They haven’t lost since, going 4-0 in the final weeks of the regular season before winning consecutive road playoff games at Washington and New Orleans. Add it all up, and Tampa Bay is 13-5 for the season, 

During the current six-game winning streak that carried Tampa Bay into Sunday’s upcoming NFC Championship at Green Bay, Brady has 16 touchdown passes, 1 interception, and a 117.2 passer rating. 

And while it’s true that Tampa Bay’s defense had four takeaways and was the No. 1 factor in Sunday’s 30-20 upset over New Orleans, Brady passed for two touchdowns and ran for another. He did his part to capitalize on the Saints’ turnovers for 21 points. 

Any questions?

No matter what happens Sunday at blustery Lambeau Field, I think it’s safe to declare or re-air these truths: 

1–While Brady owes Belichick gratitude for drafting him (in the sixth round) and giving him an NFL opportunity, TB12 had long advanced beyond the stage of needing Belichick’s supervision to be a profoundly successful quarterback. 

2–Pardon my redundancy, but Brady didn’t need Belichick or Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to win 13 of 18 games so far this season — or pass for 5,213 yards with 44 touchdown passes and only 12 interceptions. This includes five touchdowns (four passing) and no turnovers in Tampa Bay’s two postseason triumphs.

3–Update: Brady is still the G.O.A.T. He has the most regular-season wins (230) and postseason victories (32) by a quarterback in NFL history. That’s twice as many postseason wins as Joe Montana, who is No. 2 on the list with 16. And Brady has 42 more regular-season victories than Brett Favre, who ranks second. 

4–If you combine regular-season and postseason numbers, Brady has the most wins (262), touchdown passes (658), and passing yards 91.178 in NFL history. For those who would say — oddly — “Well, that’s only because Brady has played so many games” — um, YEAH. If a quarterback plays this long (21 seasons) he’ll roll up massive numbers. But y’all are missing the point. Brady has generated all of this winning, TD-pass-throwing and passing-yards-blizzards because he’s been terrific every step of the way. Brady isn’t just some old guy, hanging on to pad his stats; he’s still pretty much at the top of his game. 

5–To amplify the point: Brady will be competing in his 14th career Conference Championship game later this week. And he’s now made it to Conference Championship Sunday in nine of the last 10 seasons. The stretch began in 2011; Brady already was 34 years old. When we look at NFL history to study quarterback performances by QBs that are 34 and older, Brady destroys the field. Beginning with his age 34 season, TB12 has the most career wins, passing yards and touchdown passes — regular-season and postseason combined — among age-34-plus quarterbacks. And in this group of older quarterbacks it isn’t even close: 37 more wins than the next guy on the list (Earl Morrall); 105 more TD passes than Drew Brees (No. 2), and an astonishing 15,196 yards more than Brees (No. 2 on the list.) 

6–No quarterback in league history has started 14 conference-title games. (Montana is second with seven.) Brady is No. 1 on the all-time list for most conference championship wins (nine), most Super Bowl starts (nine) and most Super Bowl wins (six.). most than any other quarterback has conference title game starts (Joe Montana is second with seven). And only Sunday Brady will become the first quarterback since the 1970 AFL–NFL merger to start a conference championship game in three different decades (2000s, 2010s, 2020s.) 

7–As CBS Sports pointed out, Brady has more conference championship game appearances than 28 other NFL franchises. And since the ‘70 merger, Brady has more playoff wins (32) than all but four franchises: New England (36), Pittsburgh (36) and Dallas (34.) San Francisco has 32, same as Brady. And keep in mind that Brady was the starter for 30 of New England’s 36 postseason victories. 

Brady isn’t just the best quarterback in NFL history. 

He’s the best player.

At any position.

No one has come close — at any position — of staying at or near the top of the NFL through age 43. The hallowed wide receiver Jerry Rice remained elite through age 40; his numbers dropped significantly after that during his final two seasons. Likewise, Brett Favre had a strong age-40 season for Minnesota in 2009, but his performance collapsed in 2010. Warren Moon played well into his 40s and made the Pro Bowl at age 41 back in ’97. But Moon, who played through age 44, wasn’t anywhere close to Brady’s post-40 level.

Peyton Manning’s last hurrah came at age 39, in his final season (2015.) Manning went out with a Super Bowl championship, but he wasn’t very good. Denver won it all on the strength of its defense and rushing attack; Manning had a career-worst regular-season passer rating (67.9) in 2015. And though he pushed through injuries to start all three postseason games for the Broncos, Manning had an abysmal passer rating of 56.5 with two touchdowns and an interception. Joe Montana had two good seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs at the end of his career (1993, 1994.) In his first season with KC, Montana made it as far as the AFC Championship at Buffalo but completed only 9 of 23 passes before leaving the game with a concussion. Montana and the Chiefs got back to the AFC playoffs in ’94 but lost to Miami in the divisional round. And Joe was in his late 30s then. He wasn’t 43. 

For sustained, preposterous excellence — individually, and in winning postseason games and championships — no NFL player comes close to matching Tom Brady’s spectacular career. And he’s still going. Without Belichick. Without New England. Without weakness. 

Thanks for reading …