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 were personally holding back the minute-hand of the clock and keeping it from ticking.
Unhurried, deliberate, was 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 interminably, perpetually. 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 playoff meeting at Gillette Stadium. Just as surely as he is the director of the leisurely cadence he is walking toward 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 against the Titans and complete 35 of 53 passes for 337 yards. It's been said and written that some in the Patriots organization want him 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 and even cost them their heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo, to a trade. But if Brady continues to play at this level, so precise and so poised, so certain on every decision 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?
If ever Brady had an excuse for looking older and close to done, if ever he was going to seem vulnerable or pressured or mentally flat, now was the time. Evidence of internal quarreling unexpectedly erupted into public view last week, when a sourced ESPN report alleged tension between Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. Though it was denied by both, 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 talked to ESPN, badmouthing Brady and claiming Belichick might be ready to move on.
But 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 the fundamentally inhospitable environment of New England in winter, the temperature plummeting into the low 20s, the trees so bare and leafless they look like charcoal pencil sketches. He has reveled in the roars, ebbing and flowing like squalls in 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.
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 systematic as steam press. And still commanding flatly the league's best offense, averaging just shy of 400 yards a game.
Maybe Brady and Belichick do squabble over the quarterback's obsession with holistic therapies and eastern medicines, and maybe Brady's body coach Alex "Yoko" Guerrero has become a controversial factor. But what matters is how Brady performs on the field. And Brady made it clear Saturday night that he is still in charge of the time on the clock.
"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," Brady said last week when 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."