Tom Brady had been spitting blood and spitting mad, but now he was just in a familiar spot, staring down a fourth-quarter comeback in the fading light of a January Sunday.
Forty-four years old, 22 seasons into his NFL career, and it was like nothing had changed. That 27-3 deficit his Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced against these Los Angeles Rams? Ha. He’d made 28-3 famous once.
That ferocious, forceful pass rush led by Von Miller, who’d busted up Brady’s lip in the second quarter? You wipe the blood off, yell at the refs and just keep pushing.
By the time Leonard Fournette rumbled in to tie this NFC divisional playoff game at 27 and send Raymond James Stadium into pandemonium, the only explanation was Tom Brady being Tom Brady. No matter how old he gets or improbable it becomes, it should never be unexpected.
It wasn’t to be, of course. Matthew Stafford responded by leading the Rams on a five-play, 63-yard, 42-second field goal drive to win the game, 30-27, and finish Brady off the only way possible, by driving a stake through him. Stafford basically Brady’d Tom Brady.
The Rams move to the NFC title game against San Francisco. Tampa Bay’s shot at repeating as Super Bowl champs ends with a question hanging over everything.
Was Brady’s 365th career game his last?
If it is, then he’ll probably one day smile at the endearing image of himself, mid-40s, bloodied and bitter yet never backing down. The loss will hurt longer than the lip. But if he couldn’t go out hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, then at least still putting a fourth-quarter scare into the Rams was something, an old gunslinger still pumping off shots until the end.
No one knows Brady’s plan, perhaps even Brady. He may retire. He may not. He has promised to take some time after the season to think and talk it over with his family. That’s to be expected at his age.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Brady said after the game. “Taking it day by day.”
He isn’t playing for the money. It isn’t for additional fame. It isn’t even for the legacy — if the first six Super Bowls in New England weren’t enough, adding a seventh last year in Tampa, sans Bill Belichick, cemented his greatness forever. Motivation must be found. Maybe it’s being involved in classics like this.
Brady is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. His streak of starting 107 consecutive games (playoffs included) is the longest active among quarterbacks. He hasn’t missed a start due to injury since 2009. (He was suspended for four games in 2016 following the Deflategate scandal.)
Pro Football Focus graded him out in the top three in most major categories for the 2021 season, where he completed 68 percent of his passes and threw 45 touchdowns. He’s likely a top-three vote getter for NFL MVP.
Yet it wasn’t enough Sunday, which is just the nature of the NFL. Only one team wins it all, and yes, that includes teams not quarterbacked by Brady.
Everything needs to go right to win a Lombardi Trophy. Against the Rams, way too much went wrong — inaccurate passes, an interception, a strip fumble — until everything started going right — 24 consecutive points as the Rams spit up on themselves — before Stafford hit Cooper Kupp deep to effectively end it.
This was a Brady classic though, no matter the scoreboard. He stood up to a relentless rush from Miller and Aaron Donald. He made a patchwork line and a decimated receiving corps come alive. He even earned the first unsportsmanlike conduct flag of his career for berating referee Shawn Hochuli, one year his junior, for not flagging Miller for the helmet shot to the mouth. He finished 30-for-54 for 329 yards and a touchdown.
Brady once stated his goal was to play until 45. It was met with disbelief at the time, but he’ll hit that age in training camp in August.
If he’s there.
He told NBC before the game that his dream ending would be to win a Super Bowl, “but I think I’ll know when I know. But there’s a lot that’s inconclusive.”
In other words, stay tuned.
There’s the additional mystery of how the 10th episode of Brady’s ESPN docuseries “Man in the Arena” was postponed at the last minute this past week and not released as scheduled. Is it being held for a retirement announcement to be included?
The Bucs have the pieces to return as a Super Bowl contender next season, but as with every NFL team, reality is fraught with fragility. They weren’t the same this year after receiver Chris Goodwin was lost to injury and Antonio Brown essentially quit in a shirtless, midgame jog off.
Some of Brady’s key offensive weapons — specifically Rob Gronkowski — are aging. They came to Tampa to make a Super Bowl run with Tom. That happened last year. Do they even want to go for it again?
Brady arrived in the NFL in 2000 with the lowest of expectations. The 199th overall pick in the draft, he’d spent days waiting for his name to be called — including taking frustrated walks as he continuously got passed over — only to get a shot as the Patriots’ fourth-stringer.
At his rookie training camp, he famously told New England owner Robert Kraft that he was “the best decision” the franchise ever made. By his second season, he’d filled in for an injured Drew Bledsoe and led New England to its first Super Bowl title.
He’s been a legend ever since, a constant of not just fall Sundays but playoff improbabilities. So many victories (278, including 35 in the postseason). So many comebacks (67 game-winning drives, including 14 in the postseason). So many touchdowns (710 all time).
It’s almost impossible to imagine him stepping away at all, it’s like he can just go on and on and on.
Yet over the past half dozen years, Brady has spoken candidly about the stress his career puts on his family, on how his three children aren’t getting any younger, at the sacrifices his wife, model Gisele Bundchen, has made for him to keep playing.
Maybe that dynamic flips now. Or maybe Brady is back as always for another season.
If this was it, if this is finally over, then Brady went out fighting like he always did, bloodied up and battling still, none better at stalking an end zone and terrifying a defense all the way to the bitter, bitter end.