The defining moment of the NFL season came on the evening of Nov. 14, when New England quarterback Tom Brady tore into his offensive teammates late in the first half of a nationally televised night game against the Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
One week earlier, the Patriots had lost by 20 points to the Browns. They were leading the Steelers at the time, 10-3, but had just gone three-and-out when Brady blew his stack. He screamed and hollered as he left the field, and he continued to bark at his offensive mates on the bench as a nation of football watchers looked on in astonishment.
The message was clear: Brady, the Pats' leader and star, wanted his teammates to know that the stakes were higher on this night. They were playing one of the AFC's powers, the sort of team you have to beat to be considered a true contender. When you aspire to greatness, you need to play to a higher standard.
Brady then backed up the talk. He shredded the Steelers' defense for 350 yards and three touchdowns passing. He scored a TD on a quarterback sneak and emphatically spiked the football.
The Pats won, 39-26, and they haven't lost since. Today, they bring a six-game winning streak to Ralph Wilson Stadium, looking to sew up home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
During those six games, Brady has been magnificent. The Pats have averaged 37.8 points over that stretch. They're 8-1, averaging 31 points, against opponents currently ranked among the top 10 in the league in defense.
I've considered Brady the best quarterback of all time since he won his third Super Bowl in 2005. In 2007, he set a record with 50 TD passes. But when he tore up his knee and missed almost the entire 2008 season, there was speculation that he would never be quite the same.
In fact, Brady has gotten better. He's better as a passer, better as a decision-maker and as a leader. As implausible as it might sound, he's been even more impressive this season than in '07, when he played with a transcendent Randy Moss at wideout and a much more capable defense.
That's what all the great ones do. When you think they've reached the pinnacle, they find a higher mountain to climb. Magic Johnson works on his hook shot. Sidney Crosby gets better on faceoffs. Tiger Woods tinkers with his swing. Brady polishes his mechanics.
"I do think he's getting better each year," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He gets better every day. Every year at the end of the season, we talk about where his game is and what he can do to improve. He has some ideas on things he needs to work on and we talk about those. He's constantly trying to work on the little things and get his mechanics perfect.
"It's like a golfer who goes out and has a good round," Belichick said. "That doesn't mean you're going to have a good round the next time out."
No one has more quality rounds than Brady, though. He has the best regular-season winning percentage (.773) of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. He is 14-4 in the playoffs. Only Joe Montana (16) has more playoff wins. Only Montana and Terry Bradshaw have won more Super Bowls.
Brady is 16-1 against the Bills in his career. Maybe I'm biased. I've seen him play live more than any other great QB (aside from Jim Kelly). It's only natural to be partial to modern athletes, the ones you've seen with your own eyes.
It's impossible to compare Brady with Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas or Roger Staubach. The statistics don't correspond. It's a different game, a faster game, with more sophisticated coaching and specialization. How do you compare Tiger Woods to Ben Hogan, LeBron James to Oscar Robertson?
Winning is ultimately what separates the quarterbacks, that and production in your given time period. That's why Montana is widely regarded as the best ever. He led the 49ers to four Super Bowls and won them all. He never threw an interception in the Bowl and was MVP three times. Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, but his statistical profile doesn't stack up.
Brady has the three Super Bowls. If the Pats had beaten the Giants in the '08 Super Bowl and finished an unbeaten season, he would have a much stronger case for the best ever. But the argument is fluid. A year ago at this time, it was fashionable to talk about Peyton Manning as the best ever. Then he threw a late interception in a Super Bowl loss to the Saints.
Brady's only 33. If he stays healthy, he should play at least five more years. If he wins at least one more Super Bowl, he'll have the portfolio to make the case as the best QB of all time. Brady will have the most playoff wins, and likely the highest regular-season winning percentage in the modern era.
OK, so he plays for the best coach of his time in Belichick. Montana played for Bill Walsh, who was regarded as an offensive genius, a man who changed the way offense was played. Montana threw the ball to Jerry Rice, who was recently named the best player of all time in the NFL's ranking of the top 100 players.
Brady never had an elite receiver until Moss. Look at his surrounding cast this year. Two of his top four targets are rookie tight ends (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski). His running backs, Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, are undrafted free agents. Wes Welker is coming off a devastating knee injury. Kevin Faulk, a reliable third-down back for a decade, went down early with an injury. Moss was traded.
Deion Branch was a Super Bowl MVP when he caught passes from Brady. He left for the big bucks and became just another wideout. Branch returned to the Pats after the Moss trade and has regained his form of a few years ago. Now how do you suppose that happened?
Football is the ultimate team game, and the quarterback is the most vital position. The QB needs to be a team guy, a leader. Brady has the superstar's knack for lifting the players around him, for making them play to a high level, especially in the big moments.
That's what Brady was doing that November night in Pittsburgh -- raising the competitive temperature of his team. Yes, he has the hair and the model wife and the glamorous lifestyle. But above all, he is a great teammate and competitor. Evidently, everyone got the message.