Commentary

Has Tom Brady lost his magic?

Patriots QB delivered in the clutch early in his career, but that's not the case lately

Updated: October 18, 2012, 2:50 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady built the New England Patriots' dynasty on winning close games.

[+] EnlargeBelichick/McDaniels/Brady
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireBill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady can't seem to conjure up their offensive wizardry in the fourth quarter of close games.

But in the wake of another one-point loss, it seems clear that the magic is gone.

The Patriots still possess the high-powered offense that has contributed to an average margin of victory of 18.3 points. But it's the close losses that are particularly troubling.

Following Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Patriots have lost three games by a combined four points.

The Patriots are the first team with three losses by two points or fewer in their first six games since the 1960 Dallas Texans of the AFL.

With 10 games still to play, New England has already matched the franchise record for losses by less than a field goal in a season (1981).

In all three losses, Brady had the ball in his hands with less than three minutes to go and the chance to either seal the victory or produce a comeback.

It was under these circumstances that Brady emerged as an elite quarterback.

In Brady's first seven seasons as starter, the Patriots went an NFL-best 39-10 in games decided by seven points or fewer.

That included all three Super Bowl wins and 28 fourth-quarter game-winning drives engineered by Brady.

But since Brady returned from his lost 2008 season, the Patriots are 12-12 in games decided by seven points or fewer. That includes 1-5 in games decided by less than a field goal, tied with the Browns for the most such losses.

In the past 3½ years, the Patriots have more losses by seven points or fewer (12) than they did in Brady's first seven seasons combined (10).

Since he returned from injury, the Patriots are a .500 team in close games.

Certainly, Brady deserves the bulk of the credit for limiting the number of close games the Patriots find themselves in. No team has more wins by eight points or more since 2009 than New England's 40.

But when the game comes down to the final minutes, Brady seems to have lost the magic.

In New England's three losses, Brady is 6-for-17 for 65 yards in the fourth quarter and the score within seven points.

The Patriots have trailed for only 21 percent of the time this season, tied for the fifth-lowest in the NFL. That puts them in the class of the Chicago Bears (16 percent), Baltimore Ravens (17 percent), Atlanta Falcons (19 percent) and Houston Texans (21 percent), all of whom have one loss or fewer.

In other words, New England has played like an elite team, but late-game failures leave it at .500.

The current parity in the AFC East benefits New England if it can turn things around. With all four teams at 3-3, this is the latest into a season every team in one division had the same record since all five AFC East teams were 5-5 in 1987.

But something will need to change for the Patriots to achieve their ultimate goal.

The obvious turning point is Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants. Going into that game, Brady was 80-2 when leading at the start of the fourth quarter.

Including that game, he's 34-9 since. Only the Dolphins and Redskins have more losses since 2009 when leading at the start of the fourth quarter.

The high-powered offense is adept at blowing away opponents, but appears lost in close games.

Consider Brady's 15.0 Total QBR since 2009 in the final five minutes of games with a one-score lead. That's the fifth-lowest in the NFL, with only Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb, Alex Smith and Chad Henne below him.

Compare that group of names with those who lead the league under those circumstances: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning.

Brady might be the best quarterback in the NFL, but he's no longer the most clutch.

Gone missing are the days when Brady just needed the ball and a little clock to work with. That aura of inevitable winning has disappeared in close games.

Do the Patriots need to blow teams out in order to defeat them?

That's not a recipe for sustainable winning, and it's not how the Patriots won three Super Bowls by a combined nine points.

That's not to say the era of dominance is over. Far from it.

But until the Patriots rediscover success in close games, ultimate success may continue to elude them.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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