Brady threw an interception for the first time in 335 pass attempts, and with that went all of the confidence that makes Tom Brady play like, well, Tom Brady.
After the interception on the opening drive, Brady was shaky in the pocket. He held on to the ball so long that he looked like Matt Cassel in September 2008. He was hesitant to try to fit passes into small windows, seemingly unwilling to take any risks, for fear of making another mistake.
"Certainly, the first drive of the game ended on the interception on the screen pass. You never imagine that happening," Brady said on WEEI on Monday morning after a night of very little sleep. "To have two pretty efficient drives to start the game and really only come out of it with three points, it really gave them a lot of fuel. We certainly added fuel to their fire and they played very well."
After Brady capped off his MVP season with 36 touchdowns, four interceptions and 3,900 yards, it was next to impossible to see this one coming. When the whole world (myself included) predicted the Patriots to win by two touchdowns, we did so under the assumption that ?Brady would play like his usual self. He didn't, and the Pats are now packing up their things in Foxboro.
"I think we certainly expected to play better today," a stunned Brady said after the 28-21 loss. "I think we?re a pretty good football team, but not when we play like today. Like I said, a lot of the credit goes to the Jets and the way their players performed. It's disappointing the way we performed.
"I certainly wish I did a better job."
In the end, thanks to a mostly meaningless touchdown drive in the final minute of the game, Brady's stats weren't exactly awful. He was 29-for-45 (64.4 percent) for 299 yards, two touchdowns and the lone pick, but he finished with his third-lowest quarterback rating (89.0) of the season (82.7 against San Diego, 72.5 in Week 2 against Jets).
None of that is to say that the Jets weren't doing their jobs well. Shaun Ellis was a man possessed, Antonio Cromartie played roughly 750 times better than he did last month at Gillette Stadium, Mark Sanchez showed the guts that bring teams wins in the playoffs, and Rex Ryan had his team focused on avoiding mistakes at all costs.
It's also not to let the Patriots' defense off the hook. After Brady connected with Alge Crumpler and Sammy Morris ran in the two-point conversion to cut the Jets' lead to 14-11, the defense needed to make a stop. Instead, it allowed Jerricho Cotchery to find an unfathomably enormous pocket of space in the middle of the field, catch the easiest pass Sanchez will ever have to throw in his life and run for 50 yards. The defense nearly held New York to a field goal, but Santonio Holmes came through with the catch of a lifetime (though for him, I guess it would have to be the second catch of a lifetime).
Still, had Brady been on the top of his game — or even near the top of his game — the Patriots would have been able to turn things around. Instead, the only memorable passes of the night were the 37-yarder to Rob Gronkowski and the aforementioned, mostly meaningless touchdown to Deion Branch. He was sacked five times, the most since … Super Bowl XLII. Part of that was an impressive Jets rush, part of it was good coverage by Darrelle Revis and Cromartie, but most of it was Brady's shakiness in the pocket.
"Believe me," Brady said on WEEI, "I was racking my brain all night [Sunday] night realizing all the different things that I wish I would've done better. But that's why they won, and that's why they're moving on."
Now Brady, not long ago considered the greatest postseason quarterback to ever play the game of football, is standing on unfamiliar ground. In his last two playoff games, he's completed 60 percent of his 87 passes for 453 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Throw in the Super Bowl That Need Not Be Named, and his quarterback rating in the past three playoff games is an incredibly ordinary 74.3. In the span of those three games, he's gone from unbeatable to incredibly vulnerable.
On Sunday night, even when he was completing passes, he was still somewhat off the mark. Short slants to BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Wes Welker were thrown behind the wide-open targets, and though Branch will get tagged with a drop on fourth-and-13, he was lucky to have even gotten his hands on the ball that was thrown off target.
Leading up to the game, there were millions of angles covered, but none of them involved Brady playing so poorly. Perhaps next time, even if he's the league MVP, even if he's just completed one of his most brilliant seasons, even if he's playing a team against which he just scored 45 points a month earlier, maybe we'll see it coming. Maybe.