The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Brady and the Patriots appear vulnerable. Do you want to bet against them?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Maybe this is really it for those flat-voweled, hard-shelled New England Patriots. Maybe. Go ahead and mark it as the end of an era in pro football if you're sure, absolutely sure, that 42-year-old Tom Brady is finished defying normal cellular degeneration and 67-year-old coach Bill Belichick can't muster enough steel and nerve from his guys for one more postseason run. What shall we call their two decades of dominion, if it is indeed complete? An age?

With that peculiar, characteristic, tight-lipped existential state of denial known as their Way, they plodded through meetings and practice this week, affecting total unconcern about their past or future, betraying not a shred of sentimentality over the possibility that Saturday night’s first-round meeting with the Tennessee Titans could be a closing chapter — and the final home game of Brady’s career as a Patriot. “I’m not much for nostalgia,” Brady said.

You don’t win 78 percent of your games over 10 years by studying yesterday’s scores or tomorrow’s predictions or by listening to the skeptics who have been saying you’re past it for a decade. Or by dwelling on a regular season-ending loss to the Miami Dolphins so startling that, combined with Brady’s age, impending free agency and uncertain future, it made the Patriots seem suddenly more faded and vulnerable than usual — maybe even underdogs against a surging team radiating the fresh strength of youth in the Titans.

“I don’t know what we are or aren’t,” Belichick said. “We’re past last week. We’re past every week.”

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People go to ashrams and consult sages for that kind of ­be-here-nowness. The thing is, the Patriots actually practice it. If they have shown one quality over the past 20 years, it’s concentration in the face of threat. That unwaveringness is hard to properly appreciate; the numbers boggle. They have reached 40 percent of the Super Bowls played since Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994. They have had one losing season since Belichick was hired in 2000. During Belichick’s tenure, there have been 192 coaching changes around the rest of the NFL.

Their 125 wins over the past 10 regular seasons is more than any other team — by 22. Over that span they played through two royal weddings, the death of Bin Laden, the abdication of Pope Benedict, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, legalization of same-sex marriage, volcanic eruptions, ice bucket challenges, Pokémon Go, data breaches, cyberattacks, multiple Netflix binge-watches, the Kaepernick protests and the #MeToo movement.

Never once in that time have they shorted the daily grind or allowed outside chatter to distract them. They have reached eight straight AFC championship games and won 11 straight division titles, not by thinking about the big picture — “I haven’t turned on a TV,” Brady said — but by biting off history in small pieces, focusing on the granular play right in front of them.

“One play could lead to another good play,” Brady said, “which could lead to another good play, which leads to a good series, which leads to a good quarter, which leads to a good half, which leads to a good game.”

“A lot of plays come up over the years when I think about playoff football,” he added. “And if you’re on the wrong end of one of them, it’s your season. And if you’re on the right end, you move on. You don’t know which plays those are going to be, and you can’t take anything for granted. So guys are working hard and trying to do the right thing.”

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True, they have been strangely inconsistent this season despite 12 wins, and it has been a decade since they were relegated to the first round of the playoffs. “Can’t sulk on that,” running back James White said. Brady shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If we win, then what’s the difference?” Cornerback Stephon Gilmore called it “the starting-over mentality.” It came straight from Belichick, who for all of his legendary demandingness does not brood over losses and moves on to the next problem. “He flushes it in a day,” one member of the organization said.

“There’s nothing in the past that matters,” Brady declared. “Obviously, I think knowing what to expect can be a little bit helpful if you use the experience wisely, but it’s not going to help me complete a pass this weekend. I think what’s going to help me complete a pass is making a right read against a right coverage and throwing to the guy that I feel like gives us the best chance to win.”

They usually get that chance. Think about all the times they were supposedly done. In 2008 with Brady’s ACL injury. In 2012 with a second Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. In 2014 with a blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football” so bad that Belichick was asked whether he might bench Brady. In 2017 when they trailed Atlanta 28-3 in the Super Bowl. In the 2017 season when Brady, Belichick and Kraft were supposedly at one another’s throats but made another Super Bowl anyway.

True, this season has seemed . . . harder. Brady’s numbers have been down, between young and unfamiliar receivers and evidence of an elbow injury. The Patriots lost three of their last five games; they usually put all the pieces together in the closing stretch. But all that has done is make Brady bear down even more on the details.

“Sometimes you get a little off and you’ve got to just go back to the fundamentals and study some mechanics and stuff like that,” he said after practice Thursday. “I try to focus on that every week — some weeks a little more than others. It’s a game of skill; it’s a game of technique. If you’re a golfer, not every shot goes 150 yards — for me at least. Not even for the pro golfers. Every jump shot doesn’t go in. It just doesn’t happen like that. So sometimes passing the football is a little bit like that, too. There are some days where you feel like, man, everywhere you’re aiming it’s just going. And then sometimes the timing is a little bit off, decisiveness is a little bit off. It could be mental, it could be physical, but all those things play a factor, and you just try to get back to the spot where you really feel like you’re most confident.”

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The skeptics who pronounce Brady done do so at their peril. He was brilliant in a division-clinching victory over the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago, completing 79 percent of his passes. For the season he was 373 for 613 for 4,057 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions, numbers some would envy. Since he turned 40, his regular season record is ­36-12, and on Saturday he will play in a breathtaking 41st playoff game.

“That’s longer than some people’s careers,” 39-year-old tight end Ben Watson said.

It’s not just a towering physical feat; it’s a towering mental one, Watson pointed out.

“He’s put in a tremendous amount of work — physically, mentally, emotionally — to be able to keep doing it over and over and over again,” Watson said. “One thing people don’t understand sometimes is the stress mentally that playing at this level has on you. A lot of guys sometimes tap out while their bodies can still probably play. But mentally having to turn it on over and over and over again, under pressure, over and over again, for years after years, burns you out. So to have that competitive stamina that he has is really amazing.”

Whatever Brady’s physical expiration date, his contract will expire in the offseason. As for what he will choose to do next, he swore, “I haven’t thought about that.” But if he hasn’t, everyone else has. Myriad complications could break up the band.

Three teams have requested job interviews with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Others will come courting Brady in free agency. Kraft long has said he wants to see Brady finish his career as a Patriot, but Brady could demand more money than the team is willing to pay to a 43-year-old. As Brady put it during training camp, in this offseason the Patriots will be entering “pretty much uncharted territory for everybody.”

Given his repeated insistence that he would like to play until he’s 45, retirement seems unlikely. “You know, it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else in life,” he said at the start of this season. His tone had not changed as of this week.

“You’ve got to feel good to be in this position,” he said. “There’s 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 didn’t sound like a man at the end of something. He sounded like one purely in the moment. As ever.

What happened in Super Bowl LIV

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Parade: Fans gather early and in mass numbers to celebrate Chiefs’ Super Bowl in Kansas City.

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Halftime show: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira teamed up to become the first two Latina singers to perform at the Super Bowl. It was a truly riveting, wildly entertaining performance. “You may have heard the American Dream itself pulsing in a space where it will always be allowed to live,” pop music critic Chris Richards writes, “inside a pop song.”

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