The Patriots were off on Saturday. They played poorly, they were out of sync, and overall things just felt off.
They put up 34 points and covered one the largest spreads in playoff history. The Texans offense contributed to covering the spread, playing as poorly as they have all year, but the real story is Tom Brady.
Brady had one of the worst games of his career, passing for 287 yards while completing less than 50% of his passes (18-38), throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions and compiling a QB rating of 68.6. In Tom Brady's career, there have only been 3 games where he threw multiple picks, completed 50% of his passes or worse, and had a QB rating of under 70. The first was the 2003 season opener, the infamous 31-0 loss to the Bills. The next two have come in Brady's last two playoff games, in Denver for the AFC Championship Game last year, and Saturday night in Gillette against the Texans.
For someone who is widely (and rightfully) considered the greatest playoff quarterback of all time, having the two worst playoff games of his career back to back is shocking, and could potentially be alarming in regards to the Patriots Super Bowl chances. The proper way to look at it, however, is this: Tom Brady is due.
The 2015 Broncos and the 2016 Texans have a couple things in common: a nasty pass rush, and the #1 defense in football in their respective years. This, of course, is the blueprint to forcing Brady into a bad game. Obviously, having the best defense in football is a good way to hurt opposing QB's performances, but the key is the pass rush. When Brady gets hit early, he gets a little rattled, and it throws him just a little bit off for the rest of the game.
This is exactly what happened Saturday. Brady got hit and pressured early, and started pressing, not looking like his usual self. He forced passes, tossed up floaters into double coverage (that somehow got caught more often than not), and didn't carry his usual poise in the pocket. While the first interception can't be placed on him (it bounced directly off of Michael Floyd's hands), the second was a brutal mistake. Brady never saw the Texans linebacker, Bernardrick McKinney, over the middle, and threw it directly at him, leading to an easy tip drill interception in New England territory. The Patriots still won comfortably, but it was concerning for much of the middle part of the game.
Here's the good news: We don't have to expect to see *that* Brady again for the rest of the year. Let's keep the focus on Pittsburgh, and avoid the potential Super Bowl match-ups for now. The Steelers defense, while better than given credit for, is not anywhere near as scary as the Texans of this year or Broncos of last. They were middle of the road in pass defense, and gave up exactly 100 yards per game on the ground. They finished the year as a slightly above-average defense in just about every way.
Moreover, the Patriots scheme has always eaten up Pittsburgh's defense, who have sported the same scheme for most, if not all, of the Brady/Belichick era. Tom Brady is 9-2 in his career against the Steelers, with 26 touchdowns, only 3 interceptions, a completion percentage of just under 70%, and a QB rating of 113.7.
When you move the filter to feature games played at home, the success is even more impressive. Brady at home is 4-0 when playing Pittsburgh, with 15 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, over 350 yards per game in the air, a completion percentage of over 70, and a QB rating of over 130 (Quick side note, for those of you concerned about the Steelers offense coming into Gillette, check out Ben Roethlisberger's career numbers in New England).
All of this is to say, even if you had some concerns about Tom Brady moving forward, throw them out the window. This is arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and in-arguably the greatest playoff quarterback of all time. When Brady has a bad game, it is almost never followed up by a second poor one, and he has one of his historically best match-ups walking into New England with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Get ready, Patriots fans, because playoff Tom Brady is about to be back in full force.