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Super Bowl or O'Bust: Why Tom Brady is playing for his job

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Tom Brady has melted hearts for years, but if the New England Patriots lose to the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, "The Patriot Way" mandates they break Brady's heart.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

If the Patriots lose at home Saturday to the Baltimore Ravens - for the third time in the playoffs in six seasons - Tom Brady will not start the 2015 NFL season for the New England Patriots.

At least, he shouldn't.

People called me a Brady-hater after my column earlier this year detailing why the future Hall of Famer is near the end of his career with the Patriots. Yet it's not hard to see that Brady's game, like Peyton Manning's, is diminishing fast. The Patriots franchise and head coach Bill Belichick are about winning Super Bowls. Brady has looked pretty bad in a number of playoff losses, including the end of the "Perfect Season."

"The Patriot Way" makes room for no egos. It doesn't consider player loyalty. Brady has said this year several times he knows the NFL is a business. No one takes that business more seriously - and approaches personnel decisions more coldly - than the Patriots.

Those decisions have played out in the release or trade of some of the game's best players:

  • Logan Mankins was an All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl four consecutive seasons before the Patriots traded him to Tampa Bay in August.
  • Randy Moss went to the Pro Bowl the season before the Patriots traded him midseason to the Minnesota Vikings.
  • Defensive end Richard Seymour had career highs in sacks and tackles the year before he was traded to the Raiders by the Patriots in 2009.
  • Safety Lawyer Milloy went to consecutive Pro Bowls the two seasons before the Patriots released him in 2003.

The Patriots have let elite talent walk away too, including wide receiver Wes Welker in 2013 and cornerback Asante Samuel in 2008. Both players were Pro Bowlers in their final season with the Patriots.

Plus, quarterback Drew Bledsoe was released by the Patriots in 2002, replaced by up-and-coming Super Bowl champ Tom Brady. You can't overstate how beloved Bledsoe was in New England. Talking with SB Nation co-founder Tyler Blezinski last night - himself a devout Pats fan - we reminisced about the "good old days" of Bledsoe and how we both held our own private boycott of the Patriots the season he was gone.

What brought us back? "The Patriot Way."

Take note: At least a couple of these guys who have been cut or traded by the Patriots will be on Hall of Fame final ballots, and at least one will likely end up in the Hall of Fame.

Also take note: The guys who have been traded ended up with the Vikings, Bucs and Raiders. Ewwwwww.

Don't think that was lost on Brady. When he restructured his contract, Brady gave up some guaranteed money making it a lot easier for the team to release him. The contract doesn't free up any cap space, it just frees up some cash for money-strapped billionaire Robert Kraft. Frankly, the new contract almost incents the Patriots to cut him as his salary-cap number rises $1 million too $14 million in 2015. That's $13 million more than Brady's backup and eventual replacement, Jimmy Garoppolo.

Belichick established himself as a defensive genius with the New York Giants and again with the Patriots. He's won five Super Bowls based on his defensive geniusness. He tried to go out and win won with his offensive mind. He couldn't. It kept coming back to the defense. He's right back where he was in 2001: an aging quarterback, a new  young signal-caller eager to play and a defense that's one or two players away from being the best of all time.

$13 million in cap space certainly would help.

In case you haven't noticed, Brady's mentioned several times this year the possibility he won't end his career in New England. He knows. He's prepared himself for it.

On top of not wanting to be traded to the Raiders or Bucs, Brady has to see some pretty amazing opportunities out there for a new landing spot. The St. Louis Rams could be a quarterback away from a run in the playoffs. They have a strong defense and, with the right quarterback, some of their receivers - Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Brian Quick and Tavon Austin - have the potential to shine. Plus, the Rams could be headed to Los Angeles in the next couple of years. Brady likes Los Angeles. Yet the NFC West has the potential any season to be the toughest division in football.

Instead, reuniting with former Patriots quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien on the Houston Texans could make all the sense in the world: Very strong defense, good leadership, some talent at the skill positions... and the coach who helped Brady earn his second of two league MVP awards.

Certainly there's a scenario where Brady could keep his job after a loss. A 41-38 Patriots loss where Brady's QBR is in the 120s? Cutting him them might be even tougher to sell to the fans than Kraft and Belichick want to tackle.

But for the most part, Brady is playing for his job on Saturday. He'll get the conditions he has seemed to thrive in over his career: Kickoff temperature should be in the low 20s. This is a game the Patriots should win.

If they don't, the Patriots play at the Texans next season. Think that one will be in primetime?