As Tom Brady prepares for his third Super Bowl and Ben Roethlisberger heads home, Big Ben's playoff struggles only accentuate how remarkable Brady's 8-0 postseason record is.
Brady took over in 2001 for the injured Drew Bledsoe in the second regular-season game after throwing just three passes as a rookie. Four months later, he was the Super Bowl MVP.
And he still hasn't lost a playoff game.
''Yeah, sometimes I'm a little surprised by how fast it's happened,'' he said after throwing two touchdown passes in the Patriots' 41-27 win over Pittsburgh in Sunday's AFC championship game. ''But I've had so many good people around me to help me. It's a team effort, not my effort.''
OK, so Brady's right: It's almost a cliche now that the Patriots are the ultimate team, and that's why New England is a 7-point favorite over Philadelphia as it seeks to win its third Super Bowl in four seasons on Feb. 6 in Jacksonville.
But Brady every season more like his boyhood idol Joe Montana is a remarkable athlete himself. To find out just how remarkable, one need only look as far as Roethlisberger's playoff troubles.
Big Ben had the best rookie season ever by a quarterback, with 14 straight wins, eight more than the next best. But he hit the wall in the playoffs as rookies at every position often do.
He threw two interceptions against the Jets. One was returned for a touchdown; the other came late in the game and could have knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs had Jets kicker Doug Brien not missed from 43 yards.
Against the Patriots, Roethlisberger's first pass was tipped by Asante Samuel and intercepted by Eugene Wilson to set up Adam Vinatieiri's field goal that got New England off to a 3-0 lead. Just before the half, with Pittsburgh trailing 17-3, he got suckered by Rodney Harrison, an 11-year veteran, who intercepted the ball and returned it 87 yards for a score that made it 24-3 at the half.
That put Steelers in catchup mode, something a rookie quarterback just can't do against a team like New England. Montana maybe. Maybe Brady or Peyton Manning or Daunte Culpepper. But not Roethlisberger, whose success was in large part due a strong supporting cast the very thing Brady credits for his own achievement.
Wilson ended up getting a second interception later and Samuel dropped a couple he might have had.
''He has happy feet,'' Harrison said of Roethlisberger after the game. ''He's a rookie. Sometimes he throws the ball up for grabs. We got three and we could have had a few more. That's just being a rookie.''
Keep in mind that Brady was practically a rookie himself when his streak began.
Sunday's win broke the record set a decade ago by Troy Aikman for playoff victories by a quarterback at the start of a career.
But Aikman was 0-11 as a rookie in 1989 and didn't get his first postseason win until after the 1991 season, winning a wild-card game against the Bears in Chicago before losing at the Detroit Lions. The next year, the Cowboys won the first of their three Super Bowls in four seasons a record the Patriots are now on course to tie.
Brady's first playoff game was one of the most fabled in recent history the ''tuck rule'' contest in the snow of Foxboro in January 2002. Brady's apparent fumble seemed to end the Patriots' drive for the tying field goal, but it was overruled by replay when he was said to be tucking the ball away and New England went on to beat Oakland 16-13 in overtime.
The next week, Brady started the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh, injured his ribs in the first half, and was replaced by Bledsoe, who threw for New England's only offensive touchdown in a 24-17 win. But Brady was back in time to win the MVP award in the Super Bowl and Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo the next season.
Brady had been a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 after starting only one year at Michigan, where he beat out Drew Henson for the job. As a rookie, he started as a fourth stringer, threw three passes and completed one for six yards.
Though he didn't go unbeaten, he was as good in 2001 as Roethlisberger was this year.
''It was my second year but my first year as a player,'' Brady recalled last week. ''My rookie year there's no way I could have done what he did. I was awful. I couldn't do anything.''
He can do it now.
Perhaps the best demonstration came on the second-quarter touchdown pass to David Givens that gave the Patriots a 17-3 lead Sunday.
On a second-and-five from the Steelers' 9-yard-line, Givens was flanked out wide right and had started in motion to the left when Brady put up his hand to stop him because he noticed that only cornerback Willie Williams was out there. He flipped the ball out to Givens, Williams fell and it was an easy touchdown.
Would Roethlisberger have noticed that coverage and made the quick decision?
Maybe, but probably not.
A rookie, no matter how successful, is still a rookie.
Tom Brady is not.
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