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FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady knows.
He knows he and his Patriots teammates walked off Gillette Stadium’s turf Thursday afternoon after finishing their final practice of the week aware it might just be their last of the season, too.
He knows Saturday night’s playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, and this unexpected trip through the wild-card round his team has avoided for the last 10 years, could bring the official end to the Patriots’ 2019 season.
He knows a loss to the upstart Titans would unleash a nation’s worth of questions.
And he knows where those questions begin.
Will this be his final game as a Patriot? His final game at Gillette? With no contract for next season, with a stated desire to play for a few more years, with free agency beckoning, will the greatest football player this franchise has ever known really part ways with the greatest coach it’s ever known, too, and forge a new and separate legacy elsewhere?
Only Tom Brady knows.
And Tom Brady isn’t telling.
Instead, it was with a grin on his face and a few quips in his pocket that Brady walked into a post-practice interview room Thursday afternoon, reminding us that his ongoing ability to belie his 42 years doesn’t just manifest itself on the field, but occasionally in his personality, too.
Brady was all boyish charm and impish playfulness, picking up a phone meant to record his words and threatening to turn it off as he opened his session, later using an unexpected detour into mental math to drop another joke at his own expense.
What he never did was indulge the nostalgia or sentiment roiling through an entire New England fan base that knows this might be the last time they watch him play for their beloved team. He was not yet ready to put voice to any stakes beyond football.
“I’m not much for nostalgia,” he said. “I’m just pretty focused on what I need to do. This week’s felt pretty much like every other week for the last 20 years. I haven’t thought about those things, I wouldn’t be thinking about those things, anyway. It’s felt like a normal week for me. I just approach practice like I always have and try to do the best I can do.”
What Brady has done “for the last 20 years” has been unprecedented in NFL history, nine Super Bowl appearances, six Super Bowl championships, four Super Bowl MVP awards, three NFL MVP awards, and 14 Pro Bowl selections the mere tip to his iceberg of statistical accomplishments. What he has done in partnership with coach Bill Belichick, under the guidance of owner Robert Kraft, is reset the level of expectation for a football franchise that once languished in the league’s laughingstock basement. What he has done in New England will never be forgotten, and, we can most assuredly say, never be repeated.
But it cannot go on forever. And though we have reached this potential precipice before, though we spent a few late-season weeks two seasons ago dissecting reports of rancor among that franchise Big Three, though we have seen Brady get in spats over his personal trainer or spend a season’s worth of interviews unable to say anything positive about his offensive options, there is no avoiding the reality that hits us now. This really could be it.
This was Brady, wrapping up that final practice inside his home stadium, acknowledging that while the physical portion of the week’s preparations might have been finished, there was still much to be done prior to kickoff.
“The mental prep will keep going for the next however long we’ve got — what is that, 60 hours?” he wondered aloud, scanning the interview room for confirmation before continuing his own computations. “Forty-eight hours, 60 hours or so, a little less, give or take? I was no math major at Michigan, I was a general studies major so I didn’t have to take a language. But I was always decent at math.”
Everyone loves a good countdown to bring us into the new year, but one to bring us into a new Patriots era? No one is ready for that, not even the man himself.
So instead of fixating on the maybes and what-ifs, instead of indulging the could-bes and just-might-happens that fuel so many great sports debates while simultaneously igniting so many of our greatest sports fears, Brady looked no further than kickoff on Saturday night.
“There are a lot of teams that aren’t playing this week, so I think you look at this like a great opportunity to do something you love to do, which is go play football. If you’re not looking at it like that, then you’re in the wrong place,” he said. “To have the opportunity to play for this team, in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter which weekend it is, first weekend, second weekend, third weekend, fourth weekend, the team that wins is going to move on and the team that plays the best is the team that’s going to win.”
Since he started winning for the Patriots 20 years ago, Brady has amassed 30 victories in the playoffs. The other 11 quarterbacks in the field this year? They’ve combined for 26. Told of that disparity, the quarterback looked up from his lectern, grin already in place, and asked:
“That pretty good?”
Yes, Tom. That’s pretty good.
You know it.