Time is running out for Tom Brady. This summer, the Patriots’ star quarterback turns 38–at least a decade older than the average NFL player. And as great as New England has been with Brady under center–it’s hard enough to win one Super Bowl, let alone three–its most recent title came in 2005. Its last two tries, against the underdog New York Giants in 2008 and 2012, ended in crushing losses.
Super Bowl XLIX, on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz., could be Brady’s last shot to match his idol, Joe Montana, and Steelers great Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowl titles. Joining that club while playing in the current NFL, which is engineered for parity, would be a singular achievement.
New England’s opponent, Seattle, won’t make it easy. The defending Super Bowl champs were down by 12 with a little over two minutes left in the NFC championship game yet rallied to win in overtime. The Seahawks gave up the fewest yards per play in the NFL this season, and their physical defenders could give Brady and his receivers fits. Beating the Patriots would make Seattle the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls in a decade. The last to do it? New England, back in what may come to be seen as the heyday of its dynasty.
All Super Bowls are designed to feel special. This one deserves the hype. If Brady (right) can defy Seattle’s bruising defense and lead the Patriots to one more title, he may well be the best quarterback of all time.
First there was Spygate. In 2007, New England was punished by the NFL after it was caught taping an opposing team’s signals. Now one of the league’s most successful–and resented–franchises is facing a fresh controversy: Deflategate, so named because 11 of the 12 footballs the Patriots used in their 45-7 AFC championship win had reportedly about 2 lb. less pressure than the required 12.5 to 13.5 lb. per sq. in. (Some background: NFL teams supply the balls they use on offense and the referee inspects them before the game; they are returned to the team once the ref signs off.) Since a softer ball is easier to grip, the NFL is investigating if the air was deliberately let out.
To critics, Deflategate is further evidence that there’s more to the Patriot Way than hard work. “11 of 12 balls under-inflated can anyone spell cheating!!!” tweeted Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. It doesn’t help that Tom Brady expressed a fondness for underinflated balls in a 2011 interview.
Which doesn’t prove that the team did it. Falling temperatures, for one, can lower air pressure. And it’s unlikely the balls meant too much in such a lopsided game. But no matter what the NFL finds, the Patriots’ record book will have a fresh footnote.
Points the Patriots have scored per game since Oct. 5. The potent offense will face a tough test against Seattle. In their past eight games, the Seahawks have allowed an average of just 9.9 points.
3 Players to Watch on Super Sunday
Seattle’s loudmouthed All-Pro cornerback is fighting an elbow strain. Will New England target him?
Brady’s favorite receiver in the AFC title game is a versatile weapon: a former college QB, Edelman even threw a touchdown pass earlier in the playoffs.
Which version of the Seattle QB will show up? The one who threw four picks in the NFC title game or the one who redeemed them by leading a magical comeback?
This appears in the February 02, 2015 issue of TIME.