LOS ANGELES: Tom Brady and the New England Patriots set out on their latest quest for immortality on Thursday (Friday in Manila) as the National Football League season kicks off with the Super Bowl champions once again the team to beat.
Brady, who clinched a record fifth Super Bowl with February’s miraculous comeback against Atlanta, would become the oldest quarterback in history to win the title if the Patriots defend their crown in Minneapolis next year.
The 40-year-old superstar launches his 18th season in the NFL at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night with the traditional banner-raising opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Yet at a time when most players of his generation are thinking about riding off into the sunset — if they hadn’t already done so — Brady says there is no end in sight to a glittering career.
“I think my mid-40s is a place that I know I can get to,” Brady reflected during the off-season.
“Once I’m there, I can evaluate what’s happening in my life and go from there. There’s no question in my mind I’ll be able to do it. I know what to do. I know how efficient I am. I know what it takes.”
That sense of steely determination is reflected in the lengths Brady is willing to go to in order to elevate his game to the next level.
During the off-season, he analysed every offensive play from the 2016-2017 campaign, including the Super Bowl, at least twice in order to pinpoint areas in need of improvement.
“That’s why experience is so good, for things like that,” Brady told Sports Illustrated. “I know exactly what I’m looking for now.”
The chilling aspect for the rest of the league to consider is that the Patriots look to have strengthened during the off-season thanks to some typically shrewd trading by head coach Bill Belichick.
‘A challenging season’
While the season-ending injury suffered last month by Brady’s favourite receiver, Julian Edelman, is an undoubted blow, it is offset by the return to fitness of tight end Rob Gronkowski, absent for most of last year.
The addition of wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints also gives Brady a potent new offensive outlet, while the arrival of Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore strengthens the defense.
The relatively smooth build-up has even prompted some to wonder if the Patriots are capable of going 19-0, a decade after falling one game short of that target with their Super Bowl defeat to the New York Giants in 2008.
Brady however is not getting distracted by the talk of an unbeaten season, knowing full well how quickly best-laid plans can go awry.
“It’s a challenging season. It’s a marathon. It’s going to take a lot of good football to get where we need to be,” he said this week.
“Football is very humbling. You may think you have it. You go out there and practice it and things go well, and then you go to a particular game and they do things that maybe you haven’t worked on or thought about or talked about.
“We’re prepared. We’re confident. But you’ve still got to go out and do it.”
The biggest threat to the Patriots’ hopes of a sixth Super Bowl could come from another team led by a veteran quarterback, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Though comfortably beaten by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last season, the Steelers have strengthened with the addition of wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the younger brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt.
Pittsburgh, who open their campaign against Cleveland on Sunday, will also welcome back talented receiver Martavis Bryant, who returns after missing the entirety of 2016 through suspension.
“Expectations are high, and they need to be,” Ben Roethlisberger said.