NASHVILLE — Sometimes it’s so easy to forget Tom Brady is 41 years old, those nights when he goes toe to toe with the game’s young guns and airs it out with the best of them, those throws when he threads the ball through traffic and hits a receiver in stride like it’s on a string, that endless run of Sundays that he takes his organically fed, pliable body to the field over and over again, outlasting and outplaying men barely half his age.
And some days it’s all too easy to remember Tom Brady is 41 years old, those days when he’s running for his football life or buried under a pile of his football foes, when he and his Patriots’ offense are so out of synch and so far behind that you don’t just question what went wrong in one ugly loss like Sunday’s 34-10 beating at the hands of the underdog Titans. Those are the days you begin to fend off that gnawing concern that lives at the outer edges of your football consciousness, the one that reminds you Brady cannot play forever, that makes you wonder every time a game goes bad if this is the beginning of his inevitable end.
Sunday in Nashville was one of those days when it was all too easy to remember Tom Brady is 41 years old, when a sustained Titans pressure scheme barely let him unleash his patented precision passing, when three sacks and countless more hits forced him to limit his options in unfamiliar and ineffective ways, when your eyes needed nothing more than the sight of his stumbling, bumbling body falling just short of a first down, his legs betraying the hands that had just caught a third-and-7 fourth-quarter pass from Julian Edelman, to remind you he is not spry.
Brady would lament himself “a fish out of water” on the play, which was at least better than a similar attempt in the Super Bowl, when he couldn’t even catch the ball, but that looked just as bad in the comparison game, when Sunday counterpart Marcus Mariota pulled a full Nick Foles and caught his own pass on the very next series, turning his short catch into a 21-yard gain to set up Tennessee’s final touchdown. That Brady was making his NFL debut when Mariota was about a month shy of his seventh birthday can be laughed off as yet another eye-opening example of how long Brady has been doing this, but at the same time it can make you wonder how much longer it can last.
That’s how it goes when your offense struggles like it did on Sunday, when you look hurried and forced the way you did against one of your former teammates in Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who clearly knew what he wanted to do against his old QB.
“You’ve got to make Tom blink and if you make him blink and have to go to a second read, you have a chance,” Vrabel said. “If you let him rip it to the first guy he looks at, it’s going to be a long day.”
They made sure to limit his time Sunday. Of Brady’s 39 recorded targets, 32 went to Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon or James White. Brady targeted Phillip Dorsett only twice (Dorsett caught both) and Chris Hogan only once (Hogan went a second straight week without a catch). But the slowdown isn’t limited to Sunday’s game. Since lighting it up opposite Kansas City wunderkind Patrick Mahomes four weeks ago, Brady now heads into the bye week having thrown only one TD pass in his last three games. When he looks at 10 measly points on a day when offenses around the league are lighting it up (51 points for the high-flying Saints, 41 for the Bills against the hapless Jets), he knows that’s not enough.
“I don’t care about getting hit. I’d like to score points,” Brady said afterward. “I’d take a lot of hits and score points. Taking a lot of hits and not scoring points means we’re not doing enough good things right . . . They had a good plan and they did a good job executing. You play from behind all day, it’s not very ideal. We just didn’t play well enough to make enough plays to score the touchdowns we needed to. Just a bad day.”
The Patriots can afford one of those. Years of greatness have in large part been sustained by the ability to bounce back from them. But what they can’t afford is to have Brady under siege the way he was Sunday. He can’t play that way and they can’t win that way. If they are going to wring a few more championships out of his aging limbs, they need to keep him upright.
Yet there he was early in the second half Sunday, unable to effect one of Bill Belichick’s favorite maneuvers and strike a double-score around the halftime intermission (getting sacked on his final first-half play from Tennessee’s 43-yard line, going three-and-out on the first series of the third quarter), but still hoping to pull within a touchdown on his next possession. He’d escaped pressure to hit Gordon for a 23-yard gain to cross midfield, but as two of his offensive linemen collided behind him and he was brought down by his knees and ankles, he sat on the field, legs extended, head hanging, chin against his chest. He wouldn’t complete another pass that drive, the Titans would answer with a field goal, and the game was essentially over.
“We made some big plays, we had chunks, we just didn’t sustain anything,” he said. “Make a big play and then go backwards, make a big play, go backwards. If you’re not able to sustain those things you’re just behind all day, and that’s what we did.”
The Patriots have been here before — earlier this season, in fact. And after back-to-back losses in Weeks 2 and 3, they responded with six straight wins. They did it by giving Brady time. Games such as Sunday’s remind us how precious a commodity that is, especially when your quarterback is 41.