INDIANAPOLIS -- While sitting in the stands at Candlestick Park, Tom Brady grew up dreaming of following in the footsteps of Joe Montana. He has done just that, only not in a San Francisco 49ers jersey.
Brady has joined Montana, and a handful of others, in the conversation about the greatest quarterback ever.
A victory by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI would give Brady his fourth Super Bowl title. Only Montana and Terry Bradshaw have won that many. It also would give Brady his 17th postseason win, breaking a tie with Montana.
"Honestly, I haven't really given much thought to any records or anything like that," Brady said after arriving in Indianapolis. "For me and for our team, it's really about this one game and the challenges that the Giants present to us."
This has been a long time coming for Brady.
As good as New England has been the past seven seasons, going 86-26 in the regular season, including 13-3 this season, they have not hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy since the 2004 season. Their only Super Bowl appearance since then ended with a 17-14 loss to the Giants in XLII to close the 2007 season.
It took four years for Brady to return for his fifth Super Bowl, tying John Elway for the most by a starting quarterback.
"They're all pretty special," Brady said. "I say it every week: It's pretty hard to win a football game in the NFL. Every week, there's a certain level of quality of competition that you face. Thirty-two teams start out the year with hopes of being in this situation. We're very fortunate to be here. We've overcome quite a few things, quite a few adversities, to get us here, and we're really honored to represent the AFC. I think we've certainly earned it."
Brady admittedly wasn't at his best in the AFC Championship Game. He completed 22 of 36 passes for 239 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, and New England held on for the 23-20 victory because of a dropped pass in the end zone by Baltimore Ravens receiver Lee Evans and a missed field goal by Billy Cundiff.
Brady, after declaring on national TV he played "pretty bad," has promised owner Robert Kraft he will play better in the Super Bowl.
Despite being one of the best postseason quarterbacks in history, Brady has been un-Brady-like of late. In five of his past six playoff starts, he has a 2-3 record, with a 61.3 completion percentage, no 300-yard games and seven touchdowns to nine interceptions. The only game that doesn't include is the divisional-round blowout of the Denver Broncos earlier this month when Brady threw for 363 yards and six touchdowns.
Still, the Patriots wouldn't be here without Brady, and neither would Bill Belichick, who can tie Chuck Noll with four Super Bowl wins.
"Tom is a great football player, but he's come a long way from where he was in 2001, as we all have," Belichick said. "Tom works extremely hard. He is very coachable, and what you tell him to do, he works very hard on. He's never satisfied with where he is, what he's done or how he's playing. He always finds ways to work on things to make him a better player."
Brady, 34, seemingly has retained the chip on his right shoulder from being a sixth-round draft pick in 2000. Twelve years later, Brady works like he still has something to prove despite having already established himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
"I knew how good he was," said veteran guard Brian Waters, who is in his first season with New England. "I think we all know based off his performance and his record. I think I more appreciate how he prepares and how he leads in the locker room, [and] on the field.
"There are a lot of good football players in this game. All of us are good. But there are a lot of guys who really take it to another level, and it's not just done on Sunday. It's the way they prepare from Monday to Saturday that really separates them. He does as good a job as I've ever seen."
And that is why Brady could become the best ever.