Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
MINNEAPOLIS – A game ago, he couldn’t imagine his season ending on a freak practice injury, a public admission of vulnerability we sometimes forget to believe Tom Brady ever feels. But even Superman can get scared, and when a stitched-up gash on his throwing hand threatened to steal his chance at a sixth Super Bowl ring, the best quarterback of all time had to summon his strength, buy some black tape, and face down the fear.
Turns out beating fear is easier than beating the fearless. Brady’s season didn’t end on that handoff back on his home field, but on a strip sack inside a raucous Minneapolis dome instead. A stunning fourth-quarter play by these fearless Philadelphia Eagles sent Brady to his sideline earlier than he ever thought possible, denying him a chance for yet another fourth-quarter comeback drive, destined to wonder what might have been had football fate gone his way like it has so many times in the past. On the wrong side of a 41-33 final score, on the far side of his 40th birthday, on the way out of Minnesota without a sixth Super Bowl ring, but with a whole off-season worth of questions, Brady is yet again charting new ground.
Will he ever get this chance again? Will the Patriots ever be the same again? Will Josh McDaniels’s expected departure change the offense inexorably? Will Rob Gronkowski seriously consider retiring? Will Brady himself haul his aging body back on the field? Perhaps most of all, will he ever fully understand how he could set the Super Bowl passing record for the second year in a row (505 yards) yet be left to lament the lost opportunity of his night?
“I expect to be back, so we’ll see,” Brady sighed from his postgame podium. “It’s 15 minutes after the game ended. I’d like to process this a little. I wouldn’t see why we couldn’t get back.”
Across the final, painful minutes of the fourth quarter, all Brady wanted was to get back on the field. He’d already engineered one fourth-quarter go-ahead drive, giving the Patriots their first lead of the night, 33-32, on a 4-yard touchdown throw to Gronkowski with 9:22 left to go. But out came that fearless counterpart Nick Foles, eating up the clock and ratcheting up the tension, cashing in on his own tight end touchdown glory a little more than seven minutes later, snatching that lead right back out of Brady’s hand.
Still, as good as Foles was, the setup was there for Brady to win. Trailing by 5, 2:21 to go, this is his script.
One incomplete pass later, the unthinkable happened. Swallowed by an oncoming pass rush that hadn’t sacked him all night, Brady was hit. Brandon Graham got him on the throwing arm. The ball popped loose. Derek Barnett scooped it up. Brady sat on his butt on the field. Finally, he staggered back to his sideline. Up, down, right, left he went. Arms across chest. Down by his side. On the bench. Pacing the turf. Head hanging down. Eyes up and scanning the field.
So much to think about. So little he could do about it.
“Obviously, I wasn’t very happy about it,” he said. “I went to the sideline, and I figured we’d get the ball back.”
Three plays and one field goal later, the Eagles would indeed give it back. But really, that was it. There was no more magic left for one last Patriot possession, an incomplete Hail Mary pass opening the Philly floodgates. Eagles players stormed the field, green confetti rained from the rafters, and Brady, flanked by some team and security personnel guiding his way, took the long, lonely walk to the losing locker room. Like the Giants in 2007 and again in 2011, the NFC East got him again.
“They’re all pretty disappointing,” Brady said. “I mean, losing [stinks]. You show up, you try to win, and sometimes you lose. That’s the way it goes.”
This was a season that had gone Brady’s way, the league leader in passing winning another MVP despite his advancing age, the internal narratives of strife over his personal trainer or petulance over his backup quarterback unable to derail the chugging train. There was Brady early in the second quarter Sunday, taking a snap from center David Andrews, handing off to James White, suddenly standing stock still, and then, just as suddenly, splitting wide ride, running toward the sideline as a wide open wide receiver.
Maybe that should have been our hint this was going to be a crazy Super Bowl night, one that was only getting started. That Brady would let the well-placed pass from Amendola slip past his outstretched fingers — bringing plenty of jokes to mind about a ticked off wife once calling out her husband’s teammates for insisting he can’t throw and catch the ball to win a game — might have been a hint, too. Because there was Foles at the end of the half, not only matching Brady in creativity but outdoing him in execution, catching a fourth-down touchdown pass from Trey Burton on an audacious fourth-down play call that included a handoff to Corey Clement, a touchdown that in retrospect felt like a handoff from the all-world quarterback Brady to the longtime journeyman Foles.
Brady is still the best of them all, still the GOAT, still the standard-setter at the game’s most important position. But the clock is ticking louder than ever now, counting down on the difficulty of ever getting back here again.
“It’s tough to lose these games, but again, you can’t win the game if you’re not in the game,” Brady said, as if consoling himself. “You play to win. We fought to the end. I’d obviously love to not have the ball stripped from me, but they got it and made a good play. A good play at the right time”
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