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Tom Brady ended any 'greatest quarterback ever' debate in his most trying year

Brady is still fueled by a goal he set 17 years ago: to be the best quarterback who has ever played the game.

HOUSTON — It was past 3 a.m. CT when rapper Lil Wayne flaunted at the New England Patriots victory celebration. He barked something about knowing who you are and what you have done before barreling into one of his songs. The Patriots players and fans who packed the place partied like it was 2017.

Which, of course, it was — a new year, another Patriots’ championship. The franchise’s fifth. Tom Brady’s fifth.

It was six hours later on Monday morning when Brady was handed his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave it to him, which was sort of like nastily hooking a fish and then lovingly tossing it back into water. Deflategate and a four-game suspension yesterday, the big show’s most distinguished individual honor today. It was a terse smackdown, an uplifting moment. Little wonder Lady Gaga was the Super Bowl LI halftime act.

Lady Gaga, inadvertently, aptly addressed this spectacle when she sang her song, "Bad Romance."

Here is Roger’s and Tom’s verse in it: "I want your love and I want your revenge … You and me could write a bad romance."

That’s bad romance — not "bromance."

They go separate ways now, Goodell getting the first word with his season-starting suspension of Brady and Brady getting the final word with his season-ending Super Bowl title that forced Goodell to salute him in a turnabout way.

Everyone among the Patriots remains peeved at Goodell’s track in hammering Brady for deflated footballs, but the league will tell you privately that it could have made Brady look much worse. Brady’s father, Tom, has already answered that notion for everyone, eviscerating Goodell and the league over his son’s treatment before the first Super Bowl pass was thrown.

Brady would throw 62 of them in this Super Bowl, which is the clearest exclamation point we will ever see on just how far the NFL passing game has evolved in approach and importance. It is the big ticket to hefty scoring and the road map to winning championships.

Of course, Brady already figured this out during his 17 NFL seasons.

He also deciphered this:

“I’ve been labeled a cheater. I’ve been suspended. My mom is dealing with cancer. I’ve been ripped for my Donald Trump friendship. I’m playing the Super Bowl against the MVP of the league (Matt Ryan). I was a sixth-round pick, No. 199. Nothing is easy. Nothing is handed to me. I’m going to do what I set out to do in this league from the start. And that is become the greatest quarterback that ever played.”

And so he has.

* * *

It was Patriots receiver Deion Branch, the Super Bowl XXXIX MVP, who once told me about the earliest stages of Brady’s career: "People don’t understand. Tom walked through the door wanting to be known as the greatest quarterback who ever played when he is done. He is on a mission for that. Nothing is going to change that. Deep down, it’s his greatest fuel."

Brady does not talk about this. He is not done. He turns 40 on Aug. 3. He is playing an 18th NFL season. And his intent is to play more after that.

One of his greatest gifts is his ability to command situations. Think them through. Take control — his version of control.

After receiving his MVP, Tiffany-shaped, silver football on Monday morning, I visited with him about a moment in Super Bowl LI that I thought could have cost him. It was during the winning overtime drive. His first-and-10 pass from the Atlanta 37.

He threw a quick-out pass to running back James White. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones flew forward in an instant, tackling White for a 3-yard loss. For a second, it looked like Jones could get there. It looked like Jones could swipe the pass and run 63 yards for a touchdown the other way for a colossal, victorious Falcons ending. It looked close to being a Brady bombshell blunder.

Brady remembered and analyzed the play like he had a computer spitting bytes in his head.

"Yes, I remember, that was a play, a pass, where I put plenty on it," Brady said. "He made a good tackle. But there was no way he was going to intercept that. No, I knew where I was putting it. He couldn’t get to it. Not that one."

Just the command in which Brady spoke about the play illustrated how he approaches quarterbacking.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick addressed this about Brady before the Super Bowl, explaining: "He’s very diligent in his preparation. It’s not an up-and-down thing. It’s consistent every week in terms of learning the defense, learning their schemes and their players. In our system he has a lot of experience against defensive coordinators, different players and different situations. He’s able to put it together better than any player that I’ve coached. He’s a great model for all of us. Any player and any coach. All of us."

This was an especially emotional Super Bowl for Brady.

Redefining his character, his legacy. His mother, Galynn, attending her first game this season after enduring cancer treatments. The raw emotion of a 25-point comeback victory.

"My son is going to enjoy this football so much," he said of his MVP award. "He told me to bring this home to him. He is expecting it. It’s going to be a joy to give it to him."

That is this season’s final, lingering affirmation for Tom Brady.

That there is still joy in the game for him.