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The key to Tom Brady’s playoff success? The more rookies he faces, the more he dominates

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It’s pretty simple. If you are a playoff team starting defensive rookies against Tom Brady, you’re asking for trouble.

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Sample size matters.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of Tom Brady’s record-setting postseason career is the sheer size of it. When Tom Brady takes the field Sunday in Houston for his 7th Super Bowl appearance, it will register as his 34th playoff game, further extending his all-time lead over former teammate Adam Vinatieri (30 games).

For any NFL stat guru, 34 games is a remarkable sum of data for an individual player’s postseason career. But Brady’s stockpile is large enough to begin showing realistic trends. This is one of these trends.

According to numbers compiled from Pro Football Reference (by an author desperately scratching and clawing his way through the quicksand that is the pre-Super Bowl work week), Tom Brady is 14-4 in playoff games when facing a defense that starts at least one rookie. He is 10-5 in those postseason contests in which his opponent does not start a rookie defender. His QB rating in these games is 20.9 points lower (78.3 as opposed to 99.2 against defenses with a rookie defender) and his TD-INT ratio plummets from 36-11 to 25-19.

Although the concept that Tom Brady performs better against defenses with less NFL experience starting for them certainly won’t win you a Fields Medal (the “Nobel Prize” of math), the degree by which an opposing defense starts becoming more vulnerable appears to have surfaced as the sample size has grown.

Teams have started exactly one rookie defender in 11 of Brady’s playoff games. New England went 7-4 in those games as Tom carried a 61.6 completion percentage, a 22-8 TD-INT ratio, and a 93.6 QB rating. A couple memorable examples of these one-rookie games include the Patriots Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over Carolina, and the heart wrenching 2007 defeat to the New York Giants, finishing that season 18-1.

We then reach what best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as a “Tipping Point” (if you haven’t read Gladwell’s work, do it, it’s fascinating material). A tipping point is simply the spot in a set of data where a drastic shift occurs as opposed to a gradual change we would normally expect.

The tipping point for Tom Brady’s playoff performance as it relates to the number of rookie defenders starting against him is two. This represents the point where he simply stops losing. He is 7-0 when facing two or more starting rookies.

In the four games facing exactly two starting rookies, he completed 69.1% of his passes for 775 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions (a 93.6 QB rating). Not exactly knock-your-socks-off numbers, but three of the four came between 2001-2003 during an era where the Patriots relied heavily on the ground game. The four two-rookie games were:

  • The 2001 AFC Championship in Pittsburgh where Brady was forced out with an ankle injury.
  • The 2001 Super Bowl victory over Saint Louis, arguably the most memorable moment in in New England sports history.
  • The 2003 AFC Championship trampling of Indianapolis.
  • A 2007 Divisional Round home victory over Jacksonville that saw Tom complete 26 of his 28 passes.

This year’s blowout of the Steelers in the AFC Championship was the 3rd occurrence of a New England opponent starting three or more rookie defenders against Tom Brady. The other two were Divisional Round victories over the 2004 Colts and the 2011 Broncos (yes, the Tim Tebow led Broncos). Tom’s numbers in those contests? 76 completions on 103 attempts (73.8%) for 891 yards (297 per game), 10 touchdowns to 1 interception, for a QB rating of 127.9.

For all you chart guys out there, you know who you are, here’s the chart:

Not too shabby. But how is this relevant to Super Bowl 51?

In the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers just days ago, the Atlanta Falcons defense started four rookies.