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A Vintage Tom Brady–Led Comeback Fell Just Short. What’s Next?

Brady had enough magic for another unbelievable playoff win … until he didn’t

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was going to happen. Of course it was going to happen. It didn’t matter that he was wearing a Buccaneers jersey instead of a Patriots jersey. It didn’t matter that the Rams went only up 27-3, not 28-3. Tom Brady was going to pull an impossible playoff comeback out of thin air, because he’s Tom Brady. He’d led a postseason fourth-quarter comeback nine times in his career entering the day—four more than Joe Montana, the next closest on the list—and this was going to be his 10th.

It happened in typical Brady fashion. Down 24 with seven minutes left in the third quarter, ESPN’s win probability model gave the Bucs at 1.3 percent chance to win the game. No matter. Brady walked the Tampa Bay offense down the field on a 10-play, 62-yard drive that didn’t see a third down until the Rams’ 13-yard line. Los Angeles forced a field goal. 27-6.

That might seem like a failure—but the favor of the football gods began to fall on Brady, as it always seems to do. Rams star wide receiver Cooper Kupp fumbled on the first play of the ensuing Rams drive. Seven plays, 30 yards, including a gutty fourth-and-9 conversion. 27-13.

The next Buccaneers drive ended on a fumble—but so did the following Rams drive. The Buccaneers turned the ball over on downs; the Rams drove down the field, lined up a 47-yard field goal with their Pro Bowl kicker, and missed. Still 27-13.

You may have thought, just for a moment there, when the Buccaneers turned the ball over on downs again, with only 4:31 left on the clock, that everyone was finally safe. The unavoidable had been avoided. The inescapable had been escaped. The inevitable had been … evited.

3:56 on the clock. Down 14. No timeouts left. Brady went 77 yards in three plays, finding Mike Evans over Jalen Ramsey for a 55-yard bomb of a TD. 27-20.

With no timeouts available and 3:20 left, the Buccaneers elected to kick the football deep—no onside attempt. That seemed bold. A three-and-out of all running plays would have seen the Rams punt with about 1:20 remaining. That’s 80 seconds for Brady to traverse 75 yards. But with one final wave of his magic wand, Brady summoned up the Rams’ fourth fumble of the evening—a swipe from Ndamukong Suh across the body of Cam Akers, recovered by defensive captain Lavonte David. Brady had the ball again.

This is when you knew it was going to happen. Nobody gets these bounces like Brady does—and nobody capitalizes on these moments like Brady. Nobody is cooler in collapsing pockets or screaming stadiums than Brady.

It happened. As he always does, Brady—well, he handed it off. It’s not as cool as a pinpoint fade to Mike Evans or scramble drill laser beam to Rob Gronkowski, but when Leonard Fournette crossed the goal line on a fourth-and-1 run from the 9, Brady and the Bucs had tied the game. 27-27. An incredible 24 unanswered points. If he finished the job in overtime, Brady would own both the third- and (tied for) fourth-largest playoff comebacks in NFL history. That 24-point comeback would come in his 47th career playoff game and become his 36th playoff win, which would be more playoff wins as an individual than every franchise save for the Patriots and Steelers. It would come in his 22nd season, in which he led the league in passing attempts, passing yards, and passing touchdowns, and set a league record with 485 completions.

And then it didn’t happen.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford connected with Kupp for two passes totaling 64 yards, calmly spiked the ball, and set up a 30-yard chip-shot field goal. That field goal gave the Rams more points than the Buccaneers while the clock read 0:00. That means that the Rams won, but that doesn’t make any sense—Brady came back from 24 down. This was supposed to be another of his classic moments, right? NBC interviewed Stafford and Kupp after the game was over; they talked about the clutch win, the upcoming re-rematch against the San Francisco 49ers—but that means that Brady is no longer in the playoffs.

And he isn’t. He really lost. In the litany of his stellar performances, one of his most Herculean will go down as a loss. It won’t be remembered as yet another beacon of Brady’s godlike dominance. The Rams killed that god, and when they did, they reminded us: This god is 44 years old. He’s played for 22 seasons—as long as the rookies in the league have been alive. He owns almost every passing record under the sun. It was easy to forget when he was fighting Aaron Rodgers in the MVP race all year, but every season we now see of Brady might be his last.

Brady hasn’t publicly said anything about retirement, of course. He’s said that he’d like to play until he is 45, and maybe longer; the Buccaneers have no legitimate quarterback succession plan in place, and reportedly would “bend over backward” to get Brady back for the final year of his contract. After the game, Brady didn’t commit to any future, citing a desire to check in with his family and their needs relative to his desire to keep playing.

It feels like Brady will be back—mostly because 21st-century football has never existed without Brady—but also because Brady could never go out on anything less than a Super Bowl championship. For Brady to leave the same way Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers did—with a playoff loss well before Super Bowl weekend—doesn’t fit with Brady’s entire career. An exceptional player deserves an exceptional departure. And even if Brady doesn’t want the fanfare of a farewell season, such pomp and circumstance seems inescapable.

But in another way, this game would be an appropriate game on which to depart, because the magic finally expired. For more than 20 years, Brady has been a constant of the NFL. When he went down, he came all the way back, and he won—and he did it again and again and again, with the sun’s rising in the East and setting in the West. If this was the last we saw of Brady, it was a worthy exit—not because he left on a win, but because he was finally out of wins. He had given each one he had to the league, and every time we thought he had none left, he dug out one more and one more, until the tank was empty.

The tank isn’t totally empty, we don’t think. With every touchdown bomb and whistling throw this season, Brady reminded us that his arm is as strong as ever; with that 24-point comeback, Brady reminded us that he has as much fight as ever. Just as I didn’t believe Brady lost that game until … well, right now as I write this, I won’t believe Brady’s done with football until I see him standing at its pinnacle one more time.

Brady’s magic fell just short today. And if that was all the wizardry he has left, that’s OK. But remember that 1.3 percent chance the Bucs had to win it with a 24-point deficit and seven minutes left in the third quarter. Remember that, even when Brady seems out of it, he never really is.