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It's astounding how, days before Super Bowl LV, reality still hasn't quite sunk in around the NFL: Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl. The phrase has become so familiar -- such a routine utterance for football fans, players and media alike -- that perhaps the issue is the opposite: The reality has sunk in too much. Do any of us fully realize how wild, how unprecedented, how unbelievably Brady-esque it is that No. 12 is about to compete for his seventh ring ... in his very first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

It was basically a running joke around the league that the Bucs would be vying for their first Lombardi Trophy since 2002 after they signed Brady to a two-year, $50 million contract in March. Because, for as much fun as it is to project on-field success from splashy free agent signings, everyone knows that offseason championships rarely translate to real ones.

Except, apparently, when you're talking about Tom Brady. The ageless quarterback has not been perfect in 2020. He has not always "put the team on his back," as they say. The Bucs, remember, boast a top-10 defense with a knack for timely turnovers, and Brady's own numbers have surely gotten a boost from Tampa Bay's rock-solid offensive line and enviable array of pass catchers.

But if you're looking for one reason the Bucs have overcome not only a mid-season slump that seemed to threaten their viability as contenders, but also the weight of 12 straight seasons without a playoff appearance, you don't have to look any further than the old man the Bucs paid handsomely last spring. Brady hasn't just proven in 2020 that he can thrive and win apart from the Patriots dynasty with which he's been synonymous since the early 2000s. He's also proven he is the driving force behind the Bucs' resurgence. His progressive improvement throughout his age-43 season is the key reason Tampa Bay is about to make a title bid.

In the first half of the Buccaneers' season, Brady and Co. ran it up more often than not, opening 6-2 with three double-digit wins and four games with at least 30 points. Then came the rough stretch. And with that, finally, came the doubts about his ability to shine outside of New England. From Weeks 9-12, Tampa Bay dropped three of four, doing so in a surprisingly disheartening fashion. First up was a 38-3 smack-down at the hands of the rival Saints in prime time. Then, after a rout over the rebuilding Panthers at home, the Bucs fell to a Rams team that begged Tampa to steal the victory. The cherry on the sour sundae: Patrick Mahomes, Brady's upcoming Super Bowl opponent, out-dueling him in a 27-24 shootout that sent the Bucs to 7-5 heading into their bye.

Suddenly, everyone around the NFL had reason to ask a serious question of Brady: Is he capable of winning big games against good teams? And this was posed to the QB who's perhaps made the league's single greatest career out of answering that question.

That bye week, however, marked the start of the Bucs' return to form -- or at least the contending form most fans imagined prior to the season. Tampa Bay proceeded to win all four of its final regular-season games, three by multiple scores and with 30+ points, and then extend its win streak to seven with three straight road playoff wins. They've now posted at least 30 points in six straight games. Their offense has never looked more in sync. And while that's a tribute to the entire system, from Bruce Arians' oversight to coordinator Byron Leftwich's game strategy to an occasionally explosive ground game to a "D" that's set Brady up with multiple short fields in the playoffs, it's mostly a testament to the guy who handles the ball on every snap.

These are simple numbers, but the split between Brady's production pre-bye and post-bye are indicative of his improved chemistry airing it out to one of the most talented wide receiver corps in recent Super Bowl history:

WeeksRecordTDsINTsYPAQB RatingSacks















Since the bye, Brady's touchdown-per-game average, yards-per-attempt and passer rating are up, and his interception percentage is down. Again, some of that can be attributed to that sturdy O-line, or a sporadic run game that pops when it's on, or scoring chances provided by Todd Bowles' opportunistic defense. But it doesn't happen without Brady settling into his role, both in the system and alongside his supporting cast, in a big way.

For crying out loud, this is a guy none of us were positive would pan out once separated from the Patriots' system, let alone throw 40 touchdowns, go 11-5 and earn a ticket to the Super Bowl against Mahomes and the Chiefs at the age of 43. That's exactly why, if you're also looking for a reason the Bucs can't be counted out against favored Kansas City, well, the answer should be obvious.