Tom Brady embarks on another record-breaking journey into the NFL postseason on Saturday when the veteran quarterback leads the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into playoff battle against a fired-up Washington.
After a tumultuous regular season played out against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the finish line is finally in sight for the 14 teams who have battled into an expanded playoffs with dreams of reaching the Super Bowl.
For the 43-year-old Brady, it marks the business end of his bid to add a seventh Super Bowl ring to the six he accumulated during two decades of dominance with the New England Patriots.
Brady stunned the NFL in March when he announced his departure from New England, completing his move to the unfashionable Buccaneers a few days later.
While the move raised eyebrows at the time, the decision to head for pastures new has paid off handsomely for Brady.
Despite an uncertain debut in September -- he gave up two costly interceptions, including a touchdown return, in a 34-23 loss to New Orleans -- Brady has hit form just in time for the playoffs following an 11-5 season.
The Patriots, by contrast, will be frustrated spectators as the postseason gets under way, having missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
- Expectations exceeded -
Bucs coach Bruce Arians says Brady has "totally exceeded" expectations since his arrival in Florida, saying the quarterback is effectively "a coach on the field" during game-time.
"When he calls a play, the picture is in his head and he's really, really playing well," Arians said recently.
"His leadership is beyond anything I've ever seen. Peyton Manning is the only thing close."
Brady, meanwhile, is preparing to extend a slew of NFL records that may never be beaten as he readies for Saturday's trip to Washington.
Saturday's clash at FedEx Field marks Brady's 42nd playoff start. San Francisco 49ers great Jerry Rice is next on the all-time list with 29 starts.
A win over Washington would see Brady stretch his record for postseason victories as a quarterback to 31, nearly double the 16 amassed by Joe Montana. He would also break the record for road wins in the playoffs -- he is currently tied on seven with former Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
Brady -- who also owns postseason records for passing yards, completed passes and touchdowns -- has rarely shown much interest in personal statistical milestones, invariably preferring to focus on the task in hand.
That means keeping his eyes firmly fixed on Washington, who reached the playoffs after winning the NFC East with a losing 7-9 record yet boast the second best defense in the league led by rookie Chase Young.
- 'Hands full' -
"We've got our hands full with that D-Line -- one of the best D-Lines in the league," Brady said this week.
"I think we're going up against one of the biggest challenges we've faced all year. Just a real tremendous group. They put pressure on the quarterback almost every play, so we've got to step up to that challenge. Hopefully we're ready to meet it. It's going to be a big test for us."
Tampa Bay's meeting with Washington is the last of three wild card games set for Saturday, which will see the Buffalo Bills attempt to secure their first playoff win since 1995 in their home game with the Indianapolis Colts.
Saturday's other game sees a heavyweight showdown between NFC West rivals the Seattle Seahawks and the Los Angeles Rams.
The Seahawks were convincing 20-9 winners over the Rams during their regular season meeting on December 27, and will start as favourites for Saturday's game at Seattle's Lumen Field.
The Rams meanwhile head into the game with the league's best defense but uncertainty swirling around their spluttering offense.
Quarterback Jared Goff is touch-and-go following surgery to an injured thumb, meaning coach Sean McVay may turn to backup John Wolford.
Wolford made 22 of 38 passes for 231 yards in last Sunday's 18-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals, but McVay plays delaying his decision on who will start until the last possible moment.
The Rams however will be able to call on the services of giant offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, the 39-year-old who has made a remarkable return after suffering what was feared to be a season-ending knee injury two months.
"He's got that look in his eye," McVay said. "You don't want to piss Whitworth off this week. Stay out of his way. We're excited to have him back."