FOXBORO, Mass. — Tom Brady figured to wait a long time before becoming the Patriots' starting quarterback. Rich Gannon never got that chance after they drafted him.
Now the sudden star and the late bloomer lead the way for New England and Oakland. The winner of the playoff game between those teams Saturday night — when snow could limit the passing games — gets a shot at the AFC championship.
Gannon is in his third season with the Raiders and 14th overall in the NFL. But when the Patriots took him in the fourth round of the draft out of Delaware, they wanted him to play wide receiver or defensive back.
"It was kind of ridiculous for someone to do that without even talking to me," he said. "I just felt like my chances of playing in the National Football League weren't very good if I wasn't going to play quarterback."
He said he would attend law school rather than switch positions and was traded to Minnesota less than two weeks after the 1987 draft. This season he was the AFC's leading passer and led the Raiders to a 38-24 playoff win over the New York Jets last weekend.
Brady, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan in 2000, spent that year as the fourth-stringer. He started this season as the No. 2 quarterback, but starter Drew Bledsoe was durable and entrenched at the position.
Then Bledsoe was hurt in the second game — a hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis caused a serious chest injury — and an untested Brady moved in.
He finished the season as the AFC's third-ranked passer and joins Gannon in the Pro Bowl.
"He's not an up-and-down guy," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "The word I would put with him would be 'consistency.' He's the same guy day to day. He makes the same type of decision on the field consistently. He runs the team with the same type of tempo, mannerisms."
The Patriots are 11-3 under Brady, and he says he's ready for the playoffs, despite his inexperience — 14 pro starts versus Gannon's 14 seasons.
"Everything we've done so far has prepared us for this moment," Brady said.
His teammates are impressed with his unflappable demeanor.
"Anybody who's a player, who's ready to step up, they're going to step up in crucial situations," center Damien Woody said. "I expect that from him and from everybody else on this team in crunch time."
The Patriots weren't given much chance of getting this far when they finished in the AFC East cellar last season at 5-11, then started this season with two losses.
But they won the AFC East at 11-5 with Brady's leadership, Antowain Smith's running, Troy Brown's receiving and returning, and a defense rebuilt with veterans.
They won their last six games and feel Belichick's intense practices kept them sharp while playing one game in the last 27 days with two byes in three weeks. Saturday's game could be the last at Foxboro Stadium, which will be replaced by adjacent CMGi Field next year, and is only the second in 12 seasons between the teams.
In his first nine games, Brady threw 16 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. In the last five, he has two touchdown passes and five interceptions. He hasn't completed 60 percent of his passes in any of the last three games after surpassing that in his previous nine.
"We have to slow the run down and try to make Tom Brady do something," Raiders defensive tackle Grady Jackson said.
Oakland (11-6) ended a three-game losing streak by beating the Jets as Gannon threw two touchdowns and no interceptions. Gannon had 27 touchdown passes and nine interceptions in the regular season.
He admires Brady's play and the lack of dissension when he replaced Bledsoe, the top pick in the 1993 draft.
"I've been really impressed with him, not just his play but the way he's carried himself and the way he's handled the situation," Gannon said. "He's been a real spark and a catalyst."
Gannon sat out the 1994 season, threw a total of 101 passes for Kansas City the next two years, then led the Chiefs to the AFC West title in 1997.
He had his three best seasons after joining Oakland in 1999.
"He's a very athletic player for the position," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. "He's always stayed ready for the next opportunity."
So has Brady.
"The only thing I can go off is what Tom has done since he's been given the helm," Patriots receiver David Patten said. "It's nothing but confidence. It's nothing but leadership, and now when it's most important, I expect it to increase."