Greater than the GOAT? The six moments that could’ve meant Tom Brady winning more (or fewer) Super Bowls

He always was going to be Tom Brady. The list of obstacles he surmounted early in his career to become the greatest quarterback of all time is all the proof anyone should need of that. A lot of sixth-round NFL Draft picks struggle to make the roster of the team that selects them. He became the greatest quarterback of all time.

There never was any guarantee, however, that he would be this Tom Brady.

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This Tom Brady has seven Super Bowl championships, a face that’s instantly recognizable from coast to coast and more individual honors than it seems necessary to recount. We all know it’s a lot.

There could’ve been fewer, though. Probably not a lot fewer, but fewer. And there also could have been more, as hard as that is to conceive. They were circumstances both negative and positive on his journey through high-profile football competition that affected how he arrived at his retirement Tuesday with the specific truckload of accomplishments on his résumé.

These were the “Sliding Doors” moments that directed Brady here:

1. The Tuck Rule Game, Jan. 19, 2002. In a raging snowstorm in an AFC Divisional playoff game against the Raiders, Brady and the Patriots were trailing 13-10 in the final quarter. With 1:50 left at the Oakland 42, Brady retreated to pass and could find no open receivers. Charles Woodson, on a corner blitz from the left side, hit Brady and dislodged the ball, and the ball was recovered by linebacker Greg Biekert.

The officials ruled the play a fumble, and it should have clinched a victory for the Raiders. However, there was a relatively new rule in place that declared if the quarterback was in the process of moving the ball back to his body to “tuck it,” it would be an incomplete pass. If that process were complete, it would be a fumble.

By the letter of that rule, Woodson was a split-second too early. Brady had not yet completed “tucking” the ball.

By replay review, the officials overturned the call, the ball was returned to the Patriots. They subsequently got a game-tying field goal from Adam Vinatieri, and then a game-winner from him in overtime, both kicked from a pile of snow. The Patriots went on to win the first of Brady’s six Super Bowls with the team a few weeks later. But it wasn’t a smooth ride.

2. Drew to the rescue, Jan. 27, 2002. Beating the Raiders only granted the Patriots the right to visit the AFC favorite Steelers. With a quarterback who essentially was a rookie, New England would face what was acknowledged to be the league’s best defense, led by linebackers Kendrell Bell, Joey Porter, Earl Holmes and Jason Gildon.

Brady completed 12-of-18 passes for 115 yards and was sacked twice. The Patriots’ only score while he played was a punt-return touchdown. With 1:45 left in the first half, he completed a long third-down pass to receiver Troy Brown, but as he threw he was hit low by blitzing safety Lee Flowers. Brady got up with a limp and left the game.

Bledsoe completed that possession with a touchdown pass to David Patten just before the half to make it 14-3, and another special teams touchdown stretched that out of the Steelers’ reach.

It was obvious enough that Brady was struggling against the Pittsburgh defense, and that Bledsoe had been a difference-maker in the game, to create some discussion about which would start the Super Bowl against the Rams.

Coach Bill Belichick shut that down quickly, announcing that Brady would be his man.

Good call.

3. Kick in the nick of time, Feb. 1, 2004. The Patriots’ (first) season as reigning champions did not go well, so Brady was only a one-time Super Bowl winner when he arrived in Reliant Stadium to challenge the Carolina Panthers.

He was fabulous that day, with 354 yards, three touchdowns and a single interception, but the Panthers and QB Jake Delhomme were nearly as effective. It was 29-all when Ricky Proehl caught a touchdown pass for Carolina with 1:08 left, and overtime beckoned.

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Not for the first time (and not the last), Brady advanced the Patriots quickly down the field. It helped that Panthers kicker John Kasay goofed and kicked the ball out of bounds, gifting the Patriots the ball at their 40. After an initial incompletion, Brady hit five consecutive passes that carried the team to the Carolina 23.

Vinatieri saved still another title for the Patriots, kicking a 40-yard field goal on the game’s penultimate, and decisive, play.

4. The Helmet Catch, Feb. 3, 2008. The Perfect Patriots entered Super Bowl 42 with a 16-0 regular-season record, two playoff wins and status as 14-point favorites, among the few two-touchdown spreads in the game’s history.

The Giants defense, though, didn’t allow them more than two touchdowns all game.

The second of those came in the final quarter, Brady hitting superstar receiver Randy Moss for a six-yard score with 2:42 left that gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead that seemed likely to stand.

With 1:15 left, however, and the Giants facing a third-and-5 situation at their 44, quarterback Eli Manning dropped back, avoided a furious rush and heaved the ball down the center of the field. Receiver David Tyree, who had caught only four passes all season, leaped in the air and somehow pinned the ball to the side of his helmet as descended to the turf. He never let go. It was the most improbable play in Super Bowl history.

Three plays later, Manning hit wideout Plaxico Burress for a 16-yard touchown and a Giants victory.

Those Patriots could have been the greatest team of all time.

Brady had to settle with being at the forefront of the greatest dynasty.

That was still a ways off, though.

5. Marooned on the sideline, Sept. 7, 2008. With Brady, Moss and Wes Welker in place and plenty of motivation coming off the Super Bowl defeat the previous year, the Patriots were clear Super Bowl favorites.

In the season’s first game, however, after throwing just 11 passes, Brady was hit in the lower leg by a rushing Chiefs defender. Brady tore his ACL on the play and did not return until the following season. The Patriots put together a strong season without him, finishing 11-5, but still missed the playoffs.

He wasn’t his dominant self in 2009, and the team finished only 10-6. The following year, the Patriots were upset by the Jets in their first playoff game after a brilliant 2010 season. He didn’t return to a Super Bowl until the 2011 season.

6. Eli — again, Feb. 5, 2012. Every superhero has his kryptonite, in a sense, but who would have ever guessed that the man who kept Tom Brady from winning nine Super Bowls — nearly one out of every five contested — would be Peyton Manning’s little brother.

Eli was not a passenger on those Giants championship teams. They were led by the defense, no doubt, but he was a hero in both victories.

Brady threw two interceptions, so he wasn’t as great as he needed to be, but still the Patriots were ahead 17-15 when the Giants got the ball on their own 12 with 3:46 left in the game.

On the first play from there, Manning dropped back, twisted away from one rusher and found receiver Mario Manningham along the left sideline. He was not open, in the strictest sense. Manning was required to drop a pass between two defenders who were directly adjacent to Manningham. It had to be a literally perfect pass. And it was.

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That 38-yard completion launched a nine-play drive on which the Giants never even reached third down. Ahmad Bradshaw’s six-yard touchdown won it.

That was the game that ended with the most famous quote in the Brady lexicon, uttered by his wife, model Giselle Bundchen, who was overheard in the tunnel beneath the stadium declaring, “My husband cannot f-ing throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.”

Maybe she underestimated him, though.

He was the greatest we have seen at his position.

If anyone could do it, Tom Brady could.

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