EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Dressed in a dark turtleneck and slacks, his arms folded across his chest, Tom Brady stood in the middle of the New England Patriots‘ locker room making small talk with a small circle of guests.
“What a day,” the quarterback told the group. He would pose for a picture, lean over to kiss a woman on her cheek, and tell a departing teammate, Marcus Cannon, that he’d played a good game. Brady appeared to be hosting his own little cocktail party, or assuming the role of the team’s good-natured maître d’. He was acting nothing like the stone-cold killer he has been on game days for 16 years and counting.
He’d just secured his 200th NFL victory (postseason included), tying Peyton Manning’s record with a 22-17 victory over the New York Jets, and by late afternoon next Sunday, after a home game against the Rams, he’ll probably stand alone as the winningest quarterback of all time. And if you were paying attention during his latest conquest of the Jets, you understood why Pick No. 199 (of the 2000 draft) didn’t remain stuck on victory No. 199 for another week.
Brady had brought his C-plus game to MetLife Stadium, and for good reason: He was playing on one leg, playing without the injured Rob Gronkowski (knocked out early because of a back injury), and, at 39, playing against his tick, tick, ticking biological clock. He’d won an emotional homecoming game against San Francisco in Week 11, flown back across the country, and missed a couple of practices because of his achy right knee before facing a divisional opponent with a history of hitting him hard in defeat.
“I’m happy the week is over,” Brady said. “It was a long week.”
It was a longer week for the home team, of course, because Brady still found a way to beat the Jets for the 22nd time in 28 regular-season starts. Even though Brady was off for most of the game, stunning longtime admirers by sailing balls over open receivers, everyone in the house knew what was coming after the Jets wasted a possession while holding a one-point lead in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Brady took the ball at his own 17 with 5:04 to play, and the feeling inside MetLife Stadium reminded of the feeling inside Madison Square Garden in the 1990s when Michael Jordan took the ball in the closing minutes. It was game, set, overmatched. Brady faced a fourth-and-4 with 2:53 left, and the older Jets fans in their Joe Namath jerseys and the young ones in their Darrelle Revis jerseys had to know, deep down, that their 3-7 team wasn’t about to stop the singular figure who has tormented them like no other.
“If we don’t make that play,” Brady…