Tom Brady separates Patriots in final four

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
11:59
PM ET
VereenAP Photo/Elise AmendolaTom Brady threw for 344 yards and three scores as New England beat Houston in the divisional round.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Joe Flacco. … Matt Ryan. … Colin Kaepernick.

Tom Brady.

If you're looking for a clear-cut favorite among the NFL's final four teams, look no further than the quarterbacks. The disparity between Brady and his counterparts makes the New England Patriots the hands-down favorite to win Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

Brady was once again masterful in the Patriots' 41-28 divisional playoff victory Sunday over the Houston Texans. Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and had a 115.0 passer rating.

Brady has a way of consistently making good defenses look ordinary. Houston's seventh-ranked group allowed 83 points in two games against Brady this season.

Sorry, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers, but there is only one elite quarterback left in the NFL playoffs -- and he resides in New England. No one is going to stop a focused and determined Brady from capturing his fourth Super Bowl title, which would tie an NFL record with Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw.

The Ravens are up first for the Patriots in the conference title game, and Brady vividly remembers the controversial loss earlier this season.

Let’s just say Brady doesn't plan on going the Peyton Manning route next week.

“I think the two best teams are in the finals," Brady said. “Baltimore certainly deserves to be here, and so do we. It’s very fitting. We played them earlier in the year and they got us. We blew a pretty good lead there at the end, and we’re going to have to play our best game this week.”

Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco all deserve to be in the conference finals. But are Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick ready for this big stage? That is the bigger question.

Brady is one game away from his sixth Super Bowl appearance and fourth championship. Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick have zero combined Super Bowl appearances and zero combined championships. In a one-game scenario, you have to like Brady's chances. Brady’s 17 career playoff wins are nearly double the nine combined postseason wins for Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick.

Brady was winning Super Bowls when Flacco and Ryan were high school teenagers. Kaepernick was 14 when Brady won his first title in February 2002. Brady is the ultimate gatekeeper among these three green quarterbacks still trying to get over the hump and make a name for themselves. It's not going to happen on Brady's watch this year.

New England safety Steve Gregory has been on both sides of the Brady ledger. Gregory played against Brady several times as a member of the San Diego Chargers and became Brady’s teammate for the first time this season after signing as a free agent. Gregory learned quickly that it’s better to be with Brady than against him.

“His ability to get to the line, recognize defenses and get the offense in the right play is pretty amazing,” Gregory explained. “I love having him on my side now.”

The Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season after he broke his forearm for a second time, but it doesn’t matter. The Patriots proved they are adaptable. New England was 4-1 this year without Gronkowski and didn't miss a beat Sunday against Houston when Gronkowski missed more than three quarters. The high-scoring Patriots have more than enough offensive weapons at their disposal.

The only irreplaceable Patriot is Brady.

"He's our leader and we all follow him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We all respect him and he led the team today. … There's no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady."

Brady began his day at Gillette Stadium when he came out the tunnel for pregame warm-ups. He jogged to one corner of the end zone and pumped up the home crowd. Brady was intense the entire game and stayed on his teammates, even as the Patriots led by as many as 25 points in the second half.

By the time Brady carved up the Texans and went to his postgame news conference, he was subdued. Brady, 35, gave the Patriots all he had. He is playing as though there is no tomorrow.

“I’m tired, man. All the emotional energy spent,” said Brady, who is the third player in NFL history with at least 40 postseason touchdowns. “The big buildup to the week with four days of practice. You’re up and you’re down, you’re up and you’re down. I’m tired and ready to go home.”

When Brady left the news conference, he ran into Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Brady embraced Kraft by putting one arm around New England's owner, and the two chatted on the way out the stadium.

Kraft had a smile on his face during his talk with Brady. Kraft knows he has the one player who separates the Patriots from the rest of the Super Bowl field.

Brady won his first title in New Orleans versus the St. Louis Rams 11 years ago to begin his storybook career. Flacco, Ryan and Kaepernick simply aren’t good enough to stop Brady from winning his fourth championship in the same place where it all started.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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