James White could only shake his head. Surrounded by reporters at his locker on Saturday night, the longtime Patriots running back was at a loss. “I don’t have the words right now,” he muttered toward the ground. White has been a fixture in so many tight playoff games that went New England’s way; in his first five NFL seasons, he played in five AFC championship games. This time, his mood was different. While many of the faces around the Pats’ locker room were the same, exuberance had been replaced by silence and sighs. This game was the end—of an eight-year streak of AFC title game appearances, of a run of 10 straight home playoff wins, and potentially of the greatest dynasty that the football world has ever seen. “It’s like a crash landing, man,” safety Devin McCourty said. “How you view everything—you view everything with playing well and winning and advancing, and when you don’t, it’s over just like that.”
Saturday’s 20-13 wild-card-round loss to the Titans resembled countless Pats playoff games from the past two decades. After 20 years and six Super Bowl wins, the results have come to feel inevitable. Even if they stumble early, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and a familiar cast find a way. Sometimes that involves piling up tiny advantages and pulling off a well-timed trick play; other times, it involves steadily storming back from the largest deficit in Super Bowl history. So when White took a short throw from Brady 20 yards to open a Patriots drive late in the fourth quarter, more playoff magic seemed imminent.
Then Julian Edelman dropped a pass he’s caught hundreds of times in his 11-year career. New England punted the ball away, and the Titans bled the clock dry as drenched Pats fans streamed toward Gillette Stadium’s exits. The stage was set for this to follow the script that has defined the NFL in this century. Suddenly, in a blink, it wasn’t.
After the game, Belichick was his typical, curt self. “We just didn’t make enough plays,” he mumbled. That mundanity could be perceived as empty Patriots talk, but it speaks to the compartmentalizing that lies at the heart of the Belichick-Brady era. This team views each playoff game as a series of individual moments, and has triumphed like no other franchise in history by ensuring that just enough of those moments go New England’s way. That didn’t happen on Saturday. “When it came down to it, they made the key plays to win the game and we didn’t,” McCourty said. “That’s what it is in the playoffs. You know, all these games—tomorrow, next week—they’ll all be the same. It will be whatever team makes a few key plays to win the game, and that’s how it will go because all these teams are good right now and everyone’s fighting to survive.”
Survival has been a trademark of these Patriots. At times, they’ve felt unkillable, with Belichick crawling back to his feet and trudging through every onslaught. He’s Michael Myers in a cutoff hoodie. But this weekend the Titans won on the margins in the way that New England so often has over the years. On a damp, foggy night, Tennessee was able to turn to its ground game like the Pats have in playoffs past. Even as most of the Titans struggled to move the ball, they were able to lean on Derrick Henry—and his 205 total yards—to carry them. When Tennessee had an opportunity from the Pats’ 1-yard line in the waning moments of the second quarter, Henry hammered the ball home for a touchdown; when New England had a chance from the Titans’ 1-yard line a few minutes prior, they were stopped on three straight runs and forced to settle for a field goal. On that sequence, Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans—wearing, appropriately, no. 54—made three consecutive tackles and looked like Pats stalwart Dont’a Hightower stuffing Marshawn Lynch at the goal line to help New England win Super Bowl XLIX. And with a touchdown in the first quarter and a game-sealing catch in the fourth, little-known Titans tight end Anthony Firkser became the sort of unlikely hero the Patriots have routinely produced.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who played for the Pats from 2001 to 2008, even used the same loophole that Belichick exploited earlier this season to run off nearly two full minutes of clock midway through the fourth quarter. Vrabel’s team played like Patriots in Titans’ clothing, which is why it was so fitting that former New England cornerback Logan Ryan was the one to pick off Brady and scamper into the end zone in the final minute of regulation—sending Brady off the field in Foxboro for maybe the final time.
Standing at the podium around 1 a.m., Brady didn’t sound despondent like he has after other playoff losses. Perhaps he knew this depleted, Rob Gronkowski-less offense simply didn’t have what it took this season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dug deep into his bag of tricks Saturday—wide receiver sweeps, split-back passes out of the backfield, a host of screens and jet motions—but it still wasn’t enough for the Patriots to muster more than 13 points. “We all wish we could do a lot better,” Brady said. “I certainly wish that I could do some things better, but we didn’t.”
Brady didn’t sound broken, and he sure didn’t sound like someone who had just played his last game. Asked whether he may retire this offseason, Brady said it was “pretty unlikely.” Dressed in a navy work shirt, indigo jeans, brown boots, and a royal blue beanie, Brady looked like he could have at any press conference during this Patriots run. He’s the Paul Rudd of football—choose a photo of him from any point in the past 20 years, and it’s impossible to tell them apart.
The soon-to-be 43-year-old Brady will be a starting quarterback in the NFL next season. Whether it will be in New England—well, that’s a different story. After restructuring his contract in August, Brady is now set to hit the open market for the first time in his illustrious career, and teams will certainly be interested in his services. He may not be the world-destroying MVP that he was earlier in his career, but he’s still a capable passer and a famously great locker-room presence. The greatest quarterback of all time would also look pretty good on a billboard. It’s hard to picture, but Brady could follow in the footsteps of his childhood idol and enter the Joe Montana-on-the-Chiefs phase of his career.
On Saturday, Brady, Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots were mum on the QB’s future. Now isn’t the time, most responded when asked about it after the game. But from the moment Brady walked through the mist and fog and down into the tunnel, to the time that a contract is signed, the speculation will run rampant. While a reunion remains the most likely outcome, it’s not a guarantee, and that uncertainty hangs over the entire organization. “Playing for Mr. [Robert] Kraft all these years and for coach Belichick—there’s nobody that’s had a better career, I would say, than me, just being with them,” Brady said. “So, I’m very blessed and I don’t know what the future looks like and I’m not going to predict it.”
Brady’s departure would signal the end of an era and dynasty in New England, and he’s far from the only Patriots icon whose future hangs in the balance. Three lockers over from a despondent James White, special teams ace Matthew Slater, who’s also a pending free agent, pondered his future. After 10 seasons in New England, McCourty has a deal that’s set to expire after this season. Brady or no Brady, the nucleus that has carried this team is aging. Standing in front of reporters, McCourty listed off all the Pats of nearly a decade or more: himself, Brady, Slater, Hightower, Edelman, Patrick Chung, Nate Ebner, Duron Harmon, Marcus Cannon, and others. “I think, as you have a core group of guys that are now 30-plus, that always has question marks,” McCourty says. “Are we going to be as good? Are we going to retire? All of those questions continuously come up.”
Facing their football mortality, the Patriots spent the first Saturday of a new decade looking back instead of forward. An early exit and Brady’s murky future created a contemplative mood that’s been absent after previous losses. New England crash-landed in the wild-card round, and some of its legends were left considering not only the end of another season, but the end of the road.