TAMPA, Fla. — If Tom Brady played the last game of an unprecedented career, he ended with one of his toughest losses after a stunning comeback.
Bloodied and battered by the Los Angeles Rams, the 44-year-old seven-time Super Bowl champion rallied the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back from a 27-3 deficit, only to see the defense surrender a big play in the final minute to set up Matt Gay’s winning 30-yard field goal.
The Rams’ 30-27 victory Sunday sent Los Angeles home to host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game next week. They ended Tampa Bay’s bid to become the NFL’s first repeat champions since Brady led New England to consecutive titles following the 2003-04 seasons.
Have the Rams also ended Brady’s career?
“Truthfully, guys, I’m thinking about this game. I’m not thinking about past five minutes from now,” Brady said.
Brady is under contract for 2022 but his return isn’t definite.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it, taking it day by day,” Brady said.
In late September, Brady said he plans to play at least one more season, but he indicated several times since then that returning will be a family decision.
Asked last month when he’ll know it’s time to retire, Brady said:
“That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think I’ll have to just, after every year, think about what the situation looks like for me, personally and professionally. Obviously, I love playing; I don’t think my love will go away. I think I’ll be able to do it, it’s just the other things are kind of happening in my life, in regard to family situations. My kids are not getting younger, and I want to make sure that they get what they need, too.”
Brady’s agent, Don Yee, told The Associated Press last week he doesn’t know when Brady will hang it up.
“He can do it as long as he wants, because his intangibles really are very much off the charts,” Yee said for an upcoming episode of the AP Pro Football Podcast. “I’ve been around professional athletes since 1974 and I’ve seen a lot of different types of athletes. And I think all the very best will tell you the intangible part is critical. There are a lot of great, physical specimens, but to keep trying to do something for a long period of time and to do it well, you have to have other intangibles. … you have to want to get up every morning to be great.
“And so he still possesses all of that and more. And so I don’t. … It’s going to be his decision, and I would never, ever speak on his behalf on this issue. But he clearly is still performing very well.”
Brady was playing at an elite level until running into the Rams. He didn’t complete a pass on his first two drives for the first time in his 47 playoff starts, going 0 for 4.
He got called for the first unsportsmanlike penalty of his career in the first half for arguing a call after a hit busted his lip.
“He got in my face in an aggressive manner and used abusive language,” referee Shawn Hochuli told a pool reporter about flagging Brady. “As for the hit, we did not think that it rose to the level of roughing the passer.”
Brady misfired on several passes, had two turnovers and was sacked three times. But his 55-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans with just over three minutes left got the Buccaneers within 27-20.
After the Rams lost their fourth fumble, Brady drove Tampa to the tying score as Leonard Fournette ran in from the 9.
But defensive breakdowns allowed Matthew Stafford to lead the Rams in position to win it.
Brady finished 30 of 54 for 329 yards and one TD, but the offense got going far too late.
Brady overcame losing two of his top three receivers, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, and top two running backs, Fournette and Ronald Jones, down the stretch and didn’t need them last week against Philadelphia. But losing All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs last week was a huge problem Sunday. Though Fournette returned this week, the Bucs had no answer for Aaron Donald, Von Miller and L.A.’s ferocious rushers without Wirfs.
After leading the Buccaneers to their second Super Bowl title in his first season in Tampa after 20 years with New England, Brady led the NFL in yards passing (5,316), touchdowns (43), completions (485) and attempts (719) while guiding the Bucs to their first NFC South title since 2007.
Coach Bruce Arians told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that he would be “shocked” if Brady didn’t return for another season based on the fun he’s having playing the game and practicing all week.
After the loss to Los Angeles, Arians said the decision is “up to Tom.”
Rob Ninkovich, who played with Brady on the Patriots from 2009-16, created a stir this week when he said it “wouldn’t surprise” him if Brady called it quits after this season.
“Tom is playing at a high level. I’ll leave it at that,” Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said Thursday in response to a question about Ninkovich’s comments.
Every player asked about Brady said they want him back, of course.
“I’m super appreciative he came to Tampa,” Evans said. “He’s the best player who ever played the game. … He’s self-motivated. He knows what he wants. Hopefully we get him back next year.”
Brady is the NFL’s all-time leader in many categories, including yards passing (84,520) and TDs (624). He’s the only player to win more than five Super Bowls and was MVP of the game five times.
Brady led the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to beat Atlanta in the Super Bowl following the 2016 season. His defense didn’t give him a chance at the end to do it again.
Rob Maaddi, The Associated Press