Greatness in any sport is conferred by winning championships, so it is no exaggeration to say that should Tom Brady lead his New England Patriots to victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX this evening, the unassuming 27-year-old from northern California will have established himself as one of the most accomplished playmakers the game has ever witnessed.
A New England win - which seems to be little more than a formality according to the thousands of pundits and former players who have spent the past week analysing the contest from every conceivable angle - will be their third in four seasons. Brady, it seems, is poised to join an élite number of quarterbacks with at least three titles to their name.
Terry Bradshaw managed four with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. Brady's idol, Joe Montana, achieved the same number during the San Francisco 49ers' spell of dominance through the 1980s and beyond, while Troy Aikman guided the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins over a four-year span in the 1990s.
Aikman and Bradshaw believe Brady possesses the qualities necessary for membership to their exclusive club. "He's such a cool guy," enthused Bradshaw. "I admire his poise, the way he trusts himself, and his hard work. He doesn't let a situation dictate to him, he takes control of it. That's a special quality, and not many people have it."
Aikman added: "You cannot win as consistently as the Patriots have done over the last few years without quality play at the quarterback position. He is an unflappable guy, and his greatest talent is to play well when the game is on the line. He is the reason they have won so many close games."
Few expected Brady would achieve such success. The scouting reports suggested that his limited arm-strength and relative lack of speed would make him a questionable asset in the professional game. He was not a prized catch during the annual collegiate draft in 2000; almost as an afterthought, the Patriots selected him in the sixth round, projecting him as a back-up to the gifted but erratic Drew Bledsoe.
The following season, Bledsoe was forced out with injury; the quiet, unassuming Brady stepped in, and the Patriots began an unexpected charge to the Super Bowl. His confidence, his calm under fire, and his deadly accuracy resulted in an upset victory over the St Louis Rams.
Last season, Brady was to the fore again, guiding his side past the surprisingly stiff challenge of the Carolina Panthers. Tonight, the Eagles stand between him and unquestioned greatness.
Brady's success has been fuelled in part by the fact that he was drafted so late. Even today, he admits he still has an inferiority complex, a sense of having to prove himself over and over again. He is no strong-armed gunslinger or fleet-footed runner, but in New England's system Brady operates within his limitations and is chillingly efficient.
"Who needs a powerful arm anyway?" said Bradshaw. "All the great arms are at home right now. On Sunday, all the rockets will be out fishing somewhere, while Tom Brady is playing in the Super Bowl."
"I don't know if he can run 100 yards in 9.7 seconds," said Aikman, "but that doesn't matter. The key with Tom is that he plays within himself, and he does a great job of leading that team."
When Brady won his first Super Bowl, some compared him with the legendary Montana. That seemed premature, but no longer. Montana lacked charisma, never said anything controversial, and shunned the spotlight. Put him on the field with the game on the line, however, and there was an aura of mastery about him. Brady possesses similar qualities.
There have been no guarantees of victory in the build-up here, no talk of potential greatness, nothing derogatory about his opponents. He smiles through interviews, hides behind clichés and platitudes, gives nothing away.
Defensively, the Eagles are one of the most aggressive teams in the NFL, and they will attack Brady, hoping to force him into mistakes. Two weeks ago, in their play-off encounter, the Pittsburgh Steelers adopted a similar strategy, and paid a heavy price as Brady tore them to shreds. Yet to sit back and wait for him to stumble is equally futile; Brady will simply wear you down with grinding efficiency.
The likelihood is that Aikman, Bradshaw and Montana will soon be receiving an application for membership of their club. "We don't want it to get too crowded, because it's a pretty small closet," said Bradshaw. "But if he gets there, he will have earned it. Not only is he a great player, he's a terrific guy too."
"He is a great ambassador for our game," said Aikman. "I'd love to have him alongside me as a three-time Super Bowl winner."
Plays of the day
New England Patriots
Brady's deep pass
The Patriots prefer to gain their yards in small chunks, but will occasionally go for a big strike. The strategy worked in their AFC Championship win against Pittsburgh, with Tom Brady throwing a 60-yard touchdown to Deion Branch. The usual target for the deep ball, however, is David Patten. The Patriots will try to fool the Eagles, disguising the play to look like a run. At the last second, Brady will hold on to the ball instead of handing off to running back Corey Dillon. He will then look for Patten, who will have gained a crucial step against his defender.
Master of disguise
One of the Patriots' great defensive strengths is their flexibility. Backs who normally defend against the pass will suddenly attack the quarterback, while linebackers excel at showing one scheme, only to drop back into another. Mike Vrabel is a master of disguise. An outside linebacker who enjoys defending against the run, Vrabel is also adept at dropping back and covering potential receivers. Expect him to shadow Philadelphia's running back Brian Westbrook and look for a crucial interception.
Westbrook the versatile
Westbrook's primary role tonight is to carry the ball, but he is an adept pass-catcher too. During the season, the versatile Westbrook led all running backs with 73 catches. A favourite Eagle play is to line Westbrook up in the "slot", between the wide receiver and the offensive linemen. From here he tries to get open, and if quarterback Donovan McNabb is unable to find a receiver downfield, he will look for Westbrook for a shorter, but equally effective, yardage gain.
The blitz package
Attacking the quarterback is the signature of the Eagles defence. Their defensive co-ordinator, Jim Johnson, loves to blitz from all angles to create confusion and havoc. Achieving that against the disciplined Patriots will be difficult, but that will not stop Johnson trying. The strength and speed of defensive end Jevon Kearse could be crucial. Too fast for most offensive linemen to stop one-on-one, Kearse tends to draw double coverage. That could leave a colleague free for an unblocked assault on an exposed Brady.Reuse content