THE OLD quarterback knew long before the rest of us what this season could bring. Back on the first day of September, the New England Patriots released 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde. He'd spent 20 seasons in the NFL and had never seen anything like what had been assembled for 2007 in a sprawling complex alongside Route 1 in Foxborough, Mass.
In the long march to the season Testaverde, a New England backup in 2006, had seen the Patriots retool in pursuit of a fourth Super Bowl title in this decade. He'd seen the team overhaul its receiving corps, bringing in Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker; giving quarterback Tom Brady fresh and dangerous options. He knew the offensive line was experienced and stout. During unglamorous workouts in the spring and summer, Testaverde saw the seeds of uncommon greatness.
"I remember leaving there thinking, I'm looking forward to watching this team, because this is going to be something special," says Testaverde. "I don't think there's a team out there than can beat them straight up."
There were days and nights when the machinery was tested, but Testaverde would be right: The Patriots went 16--0, smashing records along the way. Yet all was a prelude to the postseason, which for New England began last Saturday night with a 31--20 divisional playoff victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. In many ways it was their most telling win, a performance that must have tantalized future opponents—like Sunday's AFC title game counterparts from San Diego—with its closeness, and discouraged them with its outcome.
Jacksonville executed a sensible game plan almost to perfection. But Brady was even nearer to perfect. The Jaguars sat in a soft Cover Two zone, often employing six defensive backs. They denied the deep ball to Moss, who was jammed all night by cornerback Brian Williams, with the support of at least one safety. It was sound thinking: The Pats are at their best when they score quickly and from great distances. The Jaguars would force them to earn every yard.
"The plan was to keep everything in front of us, make them drive down the field in a lot of plays and then stop them on third down and get off the field," said Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis. "But Brady was patient. They kept making third downs. We couldn't get off the field."
Brady was not just patient; he was surgical. He connected on 26 of 28 passes—an NFL record for single-game completion percentage (92.9)—three of which were touchdowns. One of the two misses was a flat-out drop by Welker. Twenty-two of Brady's completions were for 12 yards or less. "You play some games where you know you're not going to make 40- and 50-yard plays," said Pats tight end Kyle Brady. "This was one of those games."
It was a game in which Tom Brady threw over the heads of defensive backs exactly once all night, on a 53-yard, fourth-quarter completion to Stallworth that came off a scramble against a rare Jacksonville blitz. The rest of Brady's evening was spent standing upright in a cozy pocket, picking out short-range receivers. "Every drive was big, because there weren't many of them," said Patriots center Dan Koppen. "It seemed like every time we were on the sideline, we were saying, 'Big series, big series coming up."'
Welker caught nine balls for an average of just six yards a catch. Running back Kevin Faulk caught five passes for an average of 7.2 yards. Brady completed throws to eight different players. Second-year tailback Laurence Maroney, sent repeatedly into areas of the Jacksonville defense softened by the subtraction of linebackers in favor of defensive backs, rushed for 122 yards. Said Faulk, "We were doing whatever we could to make yardage."
It all begins and ends with Brady. From an outsider's perspective he has ascended to the highest level of celebrity: He and his supermodel girlfriend cannot walk the streets without video being splashed across the Internet. (See the recent clip in which a New Yorker stops the quarterback to introduce his dog, named Tom Brady.) It's the type of vaguely creepy treatment accorded Britney and Lindsay and, of late, Tony Romo.