FOXBOROUGH, Mass. —In the center of it all, still the most important figure on the field, was a 40-year-old man who managed to look unhurried while everything accelerated around him. Defenders clutching at his feet, linemen seizing at his jersey, Tom Brady stood still, as if he had all the time in the world, as if he was personally holding back the minute-hand of the clock and keeping it from ticking.
He was deliberate, as is his habitual pace. There was no rushing him into anything, not into a play, and not into middle age. For the moment — this moment that is stretching on, and on, and on — it looked as if he could keep playing quarterback for the New England Patriots in perpetuity. Certainly the Tennessee Titans and their 24-year-old quarterback Marcus Mariota didn’t do anything to rush him. Brady was the director of the tempo from start to finish of the Patriots’ 35-14 victory in the AFC Divisional meeting at Gillette Stadium. Just as surely as he is the director of the leisurely cadence he is taking towards the end of his career. Which, it must be said, looks distant.
How many more years can a 40-year-old man possibly have left? Brady says five, and why not, after watching him throw for three touchdowns and complete 35 of 53 passes for 337 yards against the Titans. It’s been said and written that some in the Patriots organization want Brady to retire sooner rather than later, that his determination to play on has put them in an awkward limbo, made it difficult to build for the future. But if Brady continues to play at this level, so precise and so poised that he makes excellence look monotonous, so efficient in his quick-snap offense that the Titans defenders sent plumes of exhausted breath into the cold air, how is anyone going to get rid of him? And why would they want to?
[Scrutiny is heightened, but Brady has yet to buckle]
If ever Brady had an excuse to feel pressured or weary, if ever he might have shown a crack, now was the time. All week reports circulated that there was internal tension on the Patriots over his determination to play on. ESPN alleged that Brady had become an insecure diva who wanted a commitment, while coach Bill Belichick was said to be unhappy with Brady’s body coach Alex Guerrero, and frustrated at having to trade their heir apparent at quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Though it was denied by both Brady and Belichick, who insisted they have a “great” relationship, something still seemed not quite right. In the past, the Patriots’ critics had always come from the outside, from rivals who accused them in Spygate, or commissioner Roger Goodell with his trumped up Deflategate. This time, it had come from within – someone had badmouthed Brady and, and claimed Belichick might be ready to move on. Brady dealt with it all implacably, outwardly. But who knew what was going on inside of him?
“I think we have a job to do and we know what our job is and that's to go out and play football at a high level and play well,” he said last week, asked about the negative reports swirling around him. “Nothing really should get in the way of that. That's what we're getting paid for, so to be a professional is to put everything aside and go out there and do the best you can for the team and try and help us win.”
Brady’s constitution has always been tougher than it appears. Built like a Slim Jim, lank and unmuscled looking even in pads, he has nevertheless thrived in fundamentally inhospitable environments, flourished in the New England winters, the temperature plummeting into the low 20s, the trees so bare and leafless they look like charcoal pencil sketches. He has reveled in the squalls flowing through open-ended Gillette Stadium, which admits every cold breath of wind. It’s like playing inside of a giant, screaming, team-eating maw. Brady loves it. Loves it. He trotted out in the wind chill of 13 degrees Saturday night bare-armed.
[Nick Foles outplays Matt Ryan and Eagles hold off Falcons]
Anyone who wants to get past Brady in these playoffs, much less supplant him or force him into an easy chair, has to deal with the fact that he is simply an unprecedentedly tough player, physically and psychologically. The weight of all those trophies and rings he has won is surely heavy, an invitation to complacency, slackness, or fatigue. And yet. Brady is getting older, sure, and has a nagging Achilles problem, which may have accounted for how heavily the white tape was wrapped around his cleats. But he is still setting the league standard for execution at an age when other men are getting arthritis. Still hitting every receiver in the hands, still throwing deep balls that spin through the air like fishing lures, still running the quick snap offense as systematically as steam press. And still making it to AFC Championship games, seven straight now.
Maybe Brady and Belichick do squabble over the quarterback’s timetable, and his obsession with holistic therapies and eastern medicines. Maybe Brady is pushing his luck, and he will fall off some physical cliff that he can’t anticipate. But at the moment his arm is limber and alive. Brady made it clear Saturday night that he is still is in charge of the time on the clock.
“Being on the field is a great place to – that’s where you go prove it,” he said. “You can talk all day about what you’re going to do, and what you want to do, but ultimately you got to go do it. When we get out there, that’s the best part of the week.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.