By Jason Keidel
If you needed proof that the Patriots are just different — and better — than everyone else, you merely had to watch them play on Sunday.
Though New England didn’t need to win the game to win their division or secure a first-round bye, they played as though the entire season depended on it, mauling the Miami Dolphins, 35-14.
CBS flashed a fascinating — if not quite telling — statistic during the broadcast.
There have been 23 head coaches in the AFC East since Bill Belichick assumed the Patriots sideline. It speaks to his singular dominance, and that of his gridiron general, Tom Brady, who is just as responsible for the Patriots machine as the patriarch.
While some clubs have become a parody in this era of parity, the Patriots have somehow slowed the revolving door of free agency, keeping a core group of players, a gaggle of vets sprinkled with a proper spread of youth. And they do it while Brady defies physics, medicine and logic.
But for all the plaudits from pundits, all the regular-season hardware sure to find its way into Foxborough, there’s one award that does not deserve to be in the Pats’ bulging trophy case.
This isn’t about lessons, sermons or after-school specials. This isn’t some perverted payback for No. 12. No one represents his team, town and sport better than Tom Brady.
But he doesn’t get to miss 25 percent of the season and qualify as the best player of it. While he was sprawled out across his perfect house, flanked by his perfect wife and perfect kids, other players were on the field. Matt Ryan was throwing touchdowns. Ezekiel Elliott was shredding defenses. Elliot’s teammate Dak Prescott was setting standards for rookie QBs. Derek Carr was reviving a franchise.
And while a player should not lead the list of MVP candidates no matter why he misses a month, it does matter that Brady was banned, not bruised. Had he missed two or three games from a bum knee, we could at least consider his resume. But a player who forfeits a quarter of the campaign shouldn’t expect to dart past players who’ve been there from the jump. Which is why you won’t hear this Steelers fan pine for Le’Veon Bell, who led the league in yards from scrimmage per game. But his moves off the field thwarted him on the field.
Speaking of running backs, how about David Johnson, who led the world in hybrid rushing-receiving? There wasn’t a single game this season during which Arizona’s Pro-Bowl RB didn’t gain at least 100 total yards. Indeed, Johnson didn’t even need the final game of the season to amass 2,000 total yards, entering Week 17 with 2,074. And he averaged a mind-numbing 10.9 yards per reception, an astonishing number for a ball-carrier. For context, consider Larry Fitzgerald — Johnson’s teammate and surefire Hall-of-Famer — entered Sunday’s game averaging 9.6 yards per catch.
If team record is your other criterion, then Johnson gives way to Ryan, Elliott, Prescott and Carr, all of whom led their respective teams to the playoffs.
Much will be made of Brady’s TD-to-INT ratio of 28/2, the best in NFL history. But that’s a bit myopic. First of all, Brady is passing Nick Foles, who can’t even find a starting NFL gig anymore. And there were four games during which Brady did not have an opportunity to be picked off. For my money, give me Aaron Rodgers in 2011, when he tossed 45 TD and 6 INT.
So if you feel, like most, that the best QB basically doubles as league MVP, then how about that other No. 12? Over his last seven games, Rodgers has tossed 18 touchdowns and zero interceptions. It’s hard to be better than perfect, a place few quarterbacks dwell for a single game, much less a month or two.
I was comfortable writing this a few years ago, and am equally comfortable writing it today. At his apex, Rodgers is the best quarterback in modern pro football, if not in the history of pro football. Take his 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Take how Rodgers finished the season as the first Packers quarterback ever to throw for 300 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in consecutive games. For all of Brady’s on-field splendor, no one has Rodgers’ maddening surplus of intelligence, accuracy and mobility.
If you have some personal beef with Rodgers, then take Ryan. The Falcons QB passed for 1,400 more yards, 10 more touchdowns and a higher completion percentage than Brady. Ryan also had a higher passer rating and averaged more yards per attempt. Or Derek Carr, who was one game from remolding the Raiders into a 13-3 juggernaut, their first season over .500 in 13 years. Sadly, a snapped fibula ended his run.
Fortunately for the Pats and their fans, Brady cares less about plaques on his mantle than about rings on his finger. He is acutely aware of his place on the totem pole of NFL quarterbacks. He’s already on the sport’s Mount Rushmore. But to be the leading chin, he needs to bag Super Bowl No. 5. Those still glued to Joe Montana’s legacy will point to Brady’s two losses to the Giants. But if Brady bags a fifth Lombardi Trophy, he will stand alone as the game’s most prolific, postseason quarterback. And in this age of free agency, with a turnstile planted at nearly every position, it’s exponentially harder to build and keep a core football franchise.
Tom Brady is everything you say he is, from great to clutch to a pillar in a sport that hates monoliths. He will be enshrined in Canton five years after he retires. He’s just not this season’s NFL MVP.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.