FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — At 4:01 p.m. Saturday, Tom Brady arrived at Gillette Stadium. The orange-jacketed stadium security officials prepared for his incoming as they always do, clearing loiterers from the corridor that he would pass through. He wore a tan trench coat and a navy blue beanie, he carried a big leather duffel in his left hand and he grinned. Was this an arrival like any other? Was anything different? Ah, who was to know.
The Patriots had not played in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs in a decade, so there was not much frame of reference for a game here on this particular weekend. How odd, that a juncture of the football season that the Patriots have made a habit of sitting out of, suddenly held the possibility of being a seismic event for the greatest QB of all-time and the six-ring dynasty he helped build. Or maybe, it would mean not very much at all.
Such was the atmosphere swirling on a foggy—literally and figuratively—Saturday night in New England. You know, of course, how the night ended: The Patriots’ stunning first-round loss to the visiting Titans, 20-13. But how will the dynasty end? Was this it? Or was this one of the gap years that have become a footnote, like 2005-13, 2015, 2017?
What was different on this night than any other, though, was that every person at Gillette Stadium seemed to be aware that this could be the end. Brady had played all of 2019 with it being public knowledge that he will be a free agent at the end of this league year, for the first time in his 20-year NFL career. Also, take into consideration his real-estate choices (and his body coach’s real estate choices), and Brady’s obvious frustration with the fact that his best offensive weapon of the last decade was now retired (and posing on a CBD billboard about a mile from the stadium) and the team had made little effort to replace him. Thus, the final chapter of Brady’s career was being written like a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
Brady, of course, focused on his usual routine before facing the Titans. At 7:22 p.m., about an hour before kickoff, Brady ran onto the field to Jay-Z’s Public Service Announcement, as he always does. He ran the length of the field with back-up QB Jarrett Stidham, vigorously fist pumping as he crossed the goal line. A group of Titans players were in the end zone warming up, and Brady pointed their direction. Tennessee’s star rookie receiver, A.J. Brown—the one who was picked 19 slots after Patriots rookie receiver N’Keal Harry—applauded back.
But when the Patriots offense took the field for the first possession of the game, the potential magnitude of the situation was inescapable: The crowd of 65,000 serenaded him with Brady! Brady! Brady! chants. The chorus would return in waves throughout the night: Just three plays into the game, after a 21-yard throw to Benjamin Watson when the game stopped for an injury timeout (the drive ended in a field goal). And early in the fourth quarter, after Patriots safety Duron Harmon had intercepted Titans QB Ryan Tannehill, giving the ball back to the offense at midfield (the Patriots would punt). And again when Brady got the ball back with 4:44 to play, trailing by just one point (they punted again).
Football, as ever, is a team game, and this wild-card loss was not because of any one player. The Patriots’ hallmark on defense is taking away the opponent’s most potent weapon, and yet running back Derrick Henry racked up more than 200 all-purpose yards. Bill Belichick got outsmarted by one of his own pupils, using one of his own tricks, as Mike Vrabel seized upon the loophole his former head coach had used earlier this season to drain more than a minute off the clock late in the fourth quarter by taking intentional penalties on a punt play. And the Patriots’ offense sputtered because of mistakes by seemingly a different player on each play.
They had first-and-goal at the Titans’ one-yard line in the second quarter and settled for a field goal after two negative-yard carries by RB Sony Michel and two timeouts called because they just couldn’t get comfortable. Brady’s longest completion of the day, a 38-yarder to Watson in the third quarter, was wiped off the board when right guard Shaq Mason mistakenly drifted too far downfield. When the Patriots got the ball back with 4:44 to play after Vrabel’s punt penalty machinations, trailing 14-13, it seemed like this was setting up for one of those patented Brady drives that would send the home crowd home happy. But Julian Edelman dropped a second-and-four pass that would have moved the chains, and Brady’s third-down throw whizzed past Phillip Dorsett. They punted, and the crowd fell silent.
Brady retreated to the sideline, where he moved around nervously. He sat briefly on the bench, next to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He paced. Meanwhile, the Titans got one first down, and then another. The second one, on an 11-yard run by (who else?) Henry, came right before the two-minute warning. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ played over the stadium speakers. But the odds of climbing out of this hole were simply too low—smaller than rallying back from 28-3, less than a sixth-round pick becoming the greatest QB of all-time. Even the diehards knew this: When Brady got the ball back, at the Patriots’ own one-yard line, with just 15 seconds to play, the chants did not resume their deafening tone. Brady threw a pick-six in his last pass of the game.
Safety Devin McCourty called the end of this season “a crash landing.” Other players simply couldn’t find the words to express what this felt like. In the locker room, Brady’s teammates were asked to eulogize his career, without knowing if this would even be his last game, in New England or otherwise. “If it was, I don’t really want to imagine that,” Dorsett said. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore: “That’s his decision to make. But one thing I’ll remember is the work ethic … No matter how great he is, he still pushes himself to be great each and every day, and that rubs off on everybody. It rubs off on me. Just happy to be a part of it.”
Others in the locker room have uncertain futures, too. McDaniels, Brady’s trusted OC, will again interview for head coach jobs. Is this the year he leaves? Matthew Slater, the All-Pro special-teamer, will also be a free agent. Does this feel like … the end?
“We live in a culture where we are very infatuated with making declarations and feeling like we need to be the first one to be right and the first one to say, ‘I told you so’ when the reality is no one has a crystal ball, no one knows what is going to happen in this life,” Slater said. “We just try to live life one day at a time and go from there. People are going to speculate and I’m sure there’s a lot of hot takes out there right now. I find them comical.”
The only person who knows what is next for Tom Brady is Tom Brady. It’s entirely possible that he doesn’t know yet, and either way, he’s not saying anything yet. He only went so far at his post-game press conference as to say “it’s pretty unlikely” he’ll retire. This was, no doubt, a trying season for Brady. There was the nebulous elbow injury(ies). The eight games when Brady’s completion percentage dipped below 60%—football’s Mendoza Line for productive passers. But if you wanted to be reminded of his brilliance, see the play on Saturday night when he yelled, “Julian, get in your spot!” to throw off the defense before Julian Edelman sprinted across the formation, took the handoff and ran in for New England’s only TD. If you are looking for a sign that Brady still has that fire, consider the fact that after his game-sealing pick-six, he returned to the bench area and immediately picked up one of the sideline tablets to ascertain what went wrong. He’s long stated that he wants to play until age 45. But will he? Can he? And if so, for whom?
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m not going to predict it,” Brady said. “No one needs to make choices at this point. I love playing football, I love playing for this team. I’ve loved playing for this team for two decades and winning a lot of games. And again, I don’t know what it looks like moving forward.”
At 11:51 p.m., he picked up his leather bag and disappeared out a back door. Did everything change in the last eight hours, or did nothing really change? For now, the only answer we know for certain is that this was the end—of the Patriots’ season.
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