By Howard Ulman
---- — FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady was 24 years old in his first season as a starter. It ended with a Super Bowl triumph.
Now he’s 35 and without a championship in seven years.
Yet as the time he has left to win another title decreases, the 13-year veteran doesn’t consider each new playoff chance more meaningful. For Brady, they’re all very important.
“From the day we’re born, I think we’re always one day closer to dying, since we’re a little kid,” the New England Patriots quarterback said yesterday. “(But) I don’t quite look at it like” this chance means more.
“I know it’s meaningful for our whole team, what we’re attempting to accomplish,” he said. “You don’t take these things for granted. It’s a privilege to be in this position that we’re in and certainly one of four teams to have played well enough over the course of the year to deserve the first-round bye.”
The Patriots (12-4) find out this weekend who they’ll host in the divisional round on Jan. 13. The Houston Texans will be the opponent if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Saturday’s AFC wild-card game. If the Texans lose, the Patriots will face the winner of Sunday’s game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.
They’ve played all three this season, beating the Colts 59-24 and Texans 42-14. They lost to the Ravens 31-30.
Regardless of the opponent, preparations already have begun. Brady, in fact, brought a stack of papers into his weekly news conference yesterday and set them on the podium.
“We’ve been working hard to figure out a bunch of things,” he said. “There’s a packet full of things we need to do better and things that we’re really trying to work hard to improve on.”
Brady will soon throw his first postseason pass since the final play of last season’s Super Bowl, a desperation heave that fell incomplete in the end zone, clinching the New York Giants’ 21-17 victory.
“I think every guy in the locker room wishes they could have done a little more,” Brady said after the game.
The Patriots have a lot of work to do to get back to that spot, in New Orleans on Feb. 3. And bye weeks haven’t always been a successful stepping-stone.
They had a bye in the 2010 season, then lost in the divisional round to the New York Jets, 28-21. The previous season, without a bye, they were beaten by the Baltimore Ravens 33-14 in the wild-card round. Both games were in Foxborough.
Clearly — week off or no week off, and even with home-field advantage — there are no guarantees in this league.
The Patriots were 6-2 at home this season, finishing with a 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins in which Brady threw two touchdown passes and the defense posted its first shutout in three years.
“We’ve worked pretty hard to get to this point. I don’t think you want to go in there and change everything,” Brady said. “There is always pressure in this game. There’s pressure in practice. There’s pressure to make the team. There’s pressure to keep your job. Certainly there’s pressure to win games and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Brady was the Super Bowl MVP in wins over the St. Louis Rams in the 2002 season and the Carolina Panthers two years later. The following season, wide receiver Deion Branch earned the honor against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Before that game, Branch sat with former NFL stars Dan Marino and Cris Carter for a television show. Marino and Carter had just one Super Bowl appearance between them in tremendous careers.
“They were just looking at me like, ‘You’re playing in your second Super Bowl in your third year?’ It was like they’d give up anything, all those records that these guys have, just to play in another Super Bowl,” he said. “You should take full advantage of every opportunity because you never know if you get the opportunity again.”
At 33, this may be Branch’s last. He was released and re-signed twice by the Patriots this season.
“Regardless if this is your first, second, third year or if it’s your 10th or 11th,” he said. “You never know if you’ll make it back.”
Brady has said he’d like to play into his 40s and shows no sign of faltering. He threw for 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions this season and was the second highest-rated quarterback in the AFC, behind Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos.
None of that matters now. It’s the second season. And another week of practice for what Brady hopes will be a long playoff run begins on Monday, with a true opponent to prepare for.
“When we figure out who we’ll play,” he said, “we’ll jump right into that and get going.”