Dwight Freeney first went against Tom Brady in college, when he was at Syracuse and the quarterback was playing for Michigan.
“I’ve been chasing Tom for a long time,” Freeney told reporters Thursday.
In Super Bowl LI, he’ll do it for perhaps the final time. The 36-year-old defensive end, playing in his 15th NFL season, will line up for the Falcons and try, as he has for nearly two decades now, to catch Brady.
It hasn’t been easy for Freeney, who spent his first 11 seasons with the Colts, a team that often came up short against the AFC dynasty. Freeney’s teams are 4-9 against Brady, including 1-2 in the playoffs. All of those games but one regular-season meeting in 2014, when he was with the Chargers, came with Freeney as a Colts player.
Freeney has 132 1⁄2 career sacks in the regular season and playoffs but only four in those 13 games against Brady. He recorded a sack in three of his first four games against Brady but has only one against him in nine games since 2005. The last time he brought down Brady was in 2010.
“I’ve probably seen Tom Brady more than probably anybody in the league, which is funny we’re going against him,” Freeney said of the Super Bowl matchup. “It’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be something that we’re all going to have to come together collectively and find a way to make his life uncomfortable.”
But underneath that desire for destruction is something that has evolved over time.
“Tremendous, tremendous amount of respect,” Freeney said of Brady. “What they have done, no team has done, you know? They have continued. No team has been to the Super Bowl seven times in whatever period of time that they have.”
“Tom has had an amazing career. Bill [Belichick] has had an amazing coaching career. They have done amazing things. You can’t take any of that away from them. Regardless if you don’t like losing to them — who likes losing to them? — the thing is, you just have to pay respect to those guys, man. And they’re good people. I know both of those guys. They’re good people.”
Freeney already has a ring, having won it with the Colts in Super Bowl XLI in February 2007. That was the season the Colts finally overcame the Patriots in the AFC title game and made it to the Super Bowl. To win another ring, Freeney again will have to get past the Patriots.
He sees them and Brady much differently now than he did in 2007.
“I have so much respect for him and what he’s done in his career and how he manages that offense and how he’s so consistent,” Freeney said. “Man, every year, year in, year out, he’s always doing the things to make his team advance and do the right things. So it’s going to be a tough challenge.”
It always has been.
Notes & quotes: Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said he will have a second interview for the 49ers’ head- coaching vacancy on Saturday before the Falcons fly to Houston on Sunday . . . Shanahan called the Patriots “the best defense we’ve seen in the NFL this season.”