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tara sullivan

There are no easy conclusions in debate over Tom Brady’s performance

The argument over whether Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is in decline is in full swing after back-to-back road losses.
The argument over whether Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is in decline is in full swing after back-to-back road losses.jim davis/globe staff

Tom Brady.

That’s it.

Have at it.

At this point in the grand timeline of the NFL, there are no two words more guaranteed to ignite debate, more certain to incite division, more likely to incur passionate defense on one side or gleeful disdain on the other.

If you’re a Patriots fan, hell, if you’re an NFL fan, you’re sitting here Monday and you’re talking about Tom Brady. You’re looking at these back-to-back road losses at Pittsburgh and Miami and you’re grimly accepting how each was accelerated, in part, by a bad Brady decision. The awful red-zone interception Sunday in Pittsburgh, when Brady admitted he was trying to throw away the ball but, as he said on his Monday morning WEEI radio interview, “just miscalculated.” Or last week’s just-before-halftime gaffe in Miami, when Brady admitted he lost count of the timeouts and cost his a team a chip-shot field-goal attempt.

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Both were inarguably costly. The Patriots lost Sunday by a touchdown. They lost in Miami by a point. Both were just as inarguably surprising. This is Brady, the man who has spent a career weaponizing mental preparation.

Which is why both help land us here, in the web of mental gymnastics that sets the Ping-Pong balls back and forth in your head, your heart fighting the inevitable Brady referendum your brain insists has begun. Is he done? Is the decline in full swing? Is the ride over?

Of course part of you feels awful even questioning the most proven champion of his generation, the five-time Super Bowl winner who turned himself from last-gasp draft afterthought to first-ballot Hall of Famer. But another part can’t ignore the mounting evidence he’s not playing at the same elite level that fueled those title runs (in addition to three other Super Bowl appearances). Like it or not, this is how the Brady conversation goes from now until his final snap, a convergence of popularity, longevity, and otherwordly ability making him a perpetual center of attention.

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Why else would we be dissecting the final drive of Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh so much, when Brady was gifted another chance to snatch victory from defeat’s jaws. The Steelers had turned Brady’s earlier interception into points, but a field goal left it at 17-10 with 2:30 left to play. That’s more than enough time for Brady to direct a game-tying drive (or winning one if Bill Belichick decided to go Anthony Lynn on the Steelers and go for 2), and in just a few plays, he was on his way. No timeouts, no problem. Brady drove to the 16, and still had 44 seconds left on the clock. But after a short run and an offensive hold, it was second and 15 from the 21. You all saw the rest — three straight deep middle incompletions, Brady at one point falling off to his left and hitting the turf without even getting hit, none with a shot at scoring.

“You are fighting a couple of things at that point,” Brady said on WEEI. “You’re fighting the clock, so it is hard to throw the ball in the field of play because you’re not sure if you are going to get another play off, even though maybe we could have gotten a first down. We didn’t have enough time, so they kind of sensed the goal-line and I was telling guys to find a place for me to get the ball and put your body in position in between the defender. It’s just a tough play any way you cut it. They had a lot of guys looking at the ball and your guys are trying to run vertical. They played it well.”

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They were three plays that felt excruciatingly long but impossibly quick, giving us nary more than an eyeblink to see the quarterback go from the Brady of old, the man who knows what needs to be done and has the ability to do it, to just an old Brady, unraveled by pressure, uncertain of options, unable to deliver.

Related: Shaughnessy: Is this the end for Patriots dynasty?

This is not fun. It never is when the stars struggle. It wasn’t fun watching Brett Favre morph from gunslinger to turnover machine, wasn’t fun watching Peyton Manning go from downfield bomber to check-down specialist. It’s not fun watching Eli Manning disintegrate or Aaron Rodgers struggle. The game is better when the stars are great, and Brady has been the greatest of them all. But nor is it wrong. Or mean. Or unfair. Or too soon. Brady is 41 years old. This time last year he was heading into the most stinging chapter of his football life, reports of rancor and unrest among himself, Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft exacerbating his unhappiness over treatment of personal trainer Alex Guerrero.

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A run to the Super Bowl provided temporary cover. But a loss to the Eagles left an uneasy silence. An offseason no-show at voluntary workouts made that silence louder. And now, in an up-and-down season facing the likelihood of losing home-field advantage and the prospect of playing a wild-card game, the referendum is open.

“Whether it’s penalties, turnovers, missed plays on third down, all those things keep you from scoring points and the game’s about scoring points,” Brady said Monday. “Anything that keeps you from scoring points is going to be detrimental to the team. We just had too many missed opportunities.”

So here we are.

Tom Brady.

Have at it.

But good luck reaching a conclusion. For every charge against him, there is a countercharge in his favor. That’s how it goes with someone of his caliber, of his stature, of his standing and his history. Reports of his demise have been told many times before, always to be proven premature. Can he stave them off again? The discussion is open.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.