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We’ll Believe His Retirement When We See It, But That Would Be a Fitting Final Game for Tom Brady

Forget the final score. If that really is it for the greatest quarterback ever, it's clear he would still be going out on top.

Before the game went fever-dream wild, before there was a tense exchange of final possessions, before we started refreshing the TB12 website waiting for the artfully curated I’m not retiring announcement that he seemed to be luring us into, a 44-year-old man was taking an empty shotgun snap at his own 25-yard line, down 24 points, halfway through the third quarter. And the lot of us—Rams coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matt Stafford included—thought the game was just beginning.

Think about that for a moment. Regardless of Tom Brady’s status as the greatest player in NFL history, he was also the oldest active player in the league this year; playing on an offense that has been depleted of some of its star power; trailing by more than three touchdowns; facing a defense that contained Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald; and many of us shrugged our shoulders, casually referenced Super Bowl LI when the Patriots came back from a 28–3 deficit to stun the Falcons in overtime, and figured it was just a matter of time before we had some watchable football on our hands.

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After the Buccaneers’ 30–27 loss to the Rams on Sunday, a game Tampa Bay tied with 47 seconds left, by the way, Brady was noncommittal on his future. He told reporters that he would take it day by day, igniting some muddled reports from earlier in the week that he may finally be entertaining the idea of hanging it up. While we refuse to believe it, and it seems odd that Brady’s desire to play until he’s forced to place his heart and brain into an Erhardt-Perkins avatar capable of carrying him up and down the field would suddenly extinguish, Sunday was an absolutely perfect game for Brady to end his career on.

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Aside from the final score, there was no better series of moments that could define Brady’s career. His comeback surge at the end of the game was so on brand. His precision was emblematic of that kind of unconscious mastery that he’s cultivated. Sure, some calls went his way and a missed field goal helped, but this happens in every game. Few quarterbacks in league history have been able to take the scraps of favorable circumstance that fall into their laps and roll it into a stunning comeback victory in the divisional round of the playoffs.

While it would not be the tidy narrative of Peyton Manning limp-arming the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory, it would be something almost more admirable: the best player of all time, still at his best, rifling footballs at a greater velocity and accuracy than the class of new-age passers who we celebrate so much more frequently these days. It would mean going out undeniably on top. Tom Brady’s father once told The New York Times Magazine that no matter what happens, his son’s pursuit of timelessness cannot end well. While he was addressing a potential end in New England specifically, the comment was rooted in his son’s desire to continue throwing a football until every general manager in the league refused to pay him for the privilege. On Sunday, Brady looked like a man still years away from that kind of forced retirement. Should he choose to retire now, he’d do so on a handcrafted stage from which we can still celebrate him for the best of what he was. If he wants to sign a five-year contract, we could make sense of that, too.

Based on his Tampa Bay experiment and his success in a non-Belichickian outpost, we’re also ready to believe that Brady is capable of anything. Could he resurrect the Browns? Save the Bears? Could he join the Giants and melt the hearts of the largest and meanest media market in the country? Could he find the coach who passed on him, causing Brady to say “you’re sticking with that motherf-----?” into an HBO camera and ask him if he’s still happy with his choice?

Here’s another reason Brady stops and makes us think: Imagine, for a second, if he drags this out another season or two. Imagine if someday we are waiting for The Decision Part II when his contract is up in Tampa Bay and he can entertain the free-agent market. We could have an NFL analyst who is paid to talk all day on television be seriously preparing a career retrospective out of one end of his mouth and, out of the other side, a heart-attack serious breakdown of how he would instantly lift several moribund franchises into title contention at the age when most of us begin to size ourselves for orthotics and switch to red wine because all that other stuff is tough on my stomach.

As much as we joke about Brady’s longevity as some kind of counterweight on our NFL enjoyment, we will miss him when he’s gone. We will see the perfectly sharpened black-and-white Twitter photo of his walking off some ominous football battlefield and regret not taking it all in a little longer. We will miss playoff games like the one we saw on Sunday. We will miss watching an opposing coach so nervous, pacing the sidelines up 24 points as if he were about to diffuse a burglar alarm outside of a priceless work of art. The fact that Tampa Bay did not win the game feels immaterial in so many ways because Brady did his part. He made the unthinkable seem routine again.

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