Tom Brady has made Super Bowl his stage, and he commands it like no other

Nancy Armour
USA TODAY Sports
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a touchdown during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For all of his records and Super Bowl rings, Tom Brady’s greatness is best illustrated by one number:

13.7.

That’s the percentage of Super Bowls in which Brady has played. Hundreds and hundreds of players have gone their entire careers without getting to one – including some of the best in the game. Yet Super Bowl LI (51 for those who struggle with the Roman numerals) will be Brady’s seventh appearance.

You do the math. And then take a second or two to absorb the result, one unlikely to be duplicated in the next 51 years, if at all.

“He’s a guy that, no matter how successful he is, he keeps pushing forward to get better,” said left tackle Nate Solder, who has been responsible for protecting Brady’s blind side for most of the past five years. “That rubs off on all of us. That rubs off on the entire team.”

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There are many outside of New England loath to give Brady his due. With his surly coach, supermodel wife, California cover boy looks and Uggs commercials, he and all of his wins are easy to dislike. And that was before the Deflategate saga that will be mentioned a time or 200 over these next two weeks.

But while Brady can be polarizing in a way Steve Young and Peyton Manning never were, to focus on his seemingly charmed life off the field is to miss the singular brilliance of his performance on it.

He was not a surefire NFL star; the New England Patriots picked him in the sixth round, a spot in the draft more likely to produce career backups and anonymous linemen than four-time Super Bowl champions.

His supporting cast changes as frequently as that of an off-Broadway show – Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, just to name a few – and often includes players who are stars as much for their proximity to Brady as their own abilities.

Take Sunday night’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Chris Hogan set a Patriots postseason record with 180 yards receiving as he caught two of Brady’s three TD passes in the 36-17 rout, continuing what has been a breakout season.

This would be the same Chris Hogan whom the hapless Buffalo Bills passed on during the offseason.

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Hogan, Welker, Martellus Bennett, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham – all were their best selves when they were playing with Brady. That’s not a coincidence.

“You think about basketball, and there are some point guards who make the team better … with the way they distribute the ball and the way they organize the plays and make things happen,” Bennett said, mentioning John Stockton and Chris Paul.

“Tom’s like one of the great point guards.”

Though he is pushing 40, an age where most quarterbacks are notably in decline, Brady is playing as well as ever. In his 15 years as a starter – he missed the 2008 season after shredding his knee in the first half of the season opener – he has never failed to complete less than 60% of his passes or finished with a quarterback rating lower than 83.9.

Despite missing the first four games of this season while he served his Deflategate suspension, Brady finished with 28 touchdowns, a 67.4% completion rate and a 112.2 QB rating.

Most importantly, he led the Patriots back to the Super Bowl for a seventh time.

“There are only two teams left standing and we’re one of them,” Brady said. “That’s what our goal is and it’s nice to be able to achieve that.”

Like him or not, there's no denying Brady has the Super Bowl's number.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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