Decline comes for us all. Rome fell. The British empire receded. The Romanovs, the Habsburgs—gone. And on a fog-enshrouded night last weekend in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the most impressive and enduring sports dynasty of the 21st century sputtered to its inevitable end, as the Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans, 20–13, in a first-round playoff game.
If this was Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot—he is 42 years old and a free agent—or indeed his last as a professional quarterback, “Hub Kid Bids Fans Adieu” it was not. In 1960, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park, famously memorialized by John Updike in The New Yorker, Ted Williams hit a home run, an apt capstone to a legendary career. With his final pass in what may be his final game at Gillette Stadium, Brady threw a hapless pick-six—an interception that was run back for a touchdown—an ignominious and undignified end that seemed almost contrary to nature.
Since 2001, with the age-defying Brady at quarterback and the hooded and glowering Bill Belichick as coach, Patriot dominance had come to seem almost like a law of physics—an immutable constant. Nine Super Bowl appearances and six Super Bowl championships spread across 17 years. Sixteen AFC East Championships—including the past 11 in a row. A perfect 16–0 regular season in 2007. Brady himself has won more games than any other quarterback in pro-football history; he has never had a losing season. He was the league MVP three times, and the Super Bowl MVP four times. He has more playoff touchdowns, completions, passing yards, and Super Bowl appearances than any other player in history. What makes the sustained stretch of shock and awe that Brady and Belichick imposed on the rest of the league all the more impressive is that it was achieved during a proverbial era of parity for professional football, when the rules have pushed toward an egalitarianism of outcome. (For a plutocratic bunch, those NFL owners run a pretty socialistic operation.)
But what Brady and Belichick accomplished went beyond statistics: They taught Patriots fans and Patriots haters alike to believe in magic. No matter how dire things looked, when Belichick and Brady were involved there was always—always—a chance. Across his career, Brady engineered 42 fourth-quarter comebacks—nine of them in the playoffs (the same number, I note, as Joe Montana and John Elway combined). He’s like Thor, or Superman, or Greta Thunberg—when everything looks lost, he arrives to save the day.
Fourteen-point underdogs against the St. Louis Rams (“the Greatest Show on Turf”) in Super Bowl XXXVI, in Brady’s first year as quarterback, in 2002? No problem. Down 10 points to the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, in 2015? No problem. Down 28–3 at halftime against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, in 2017? No problem.
After two decades of this, we’d become accustomed to Brady’s Lazarus act, his ability to bring the Patriots back from the dead again and again. Part of the joy of rooting for the Patriots over the past decade was watching them defy premature obituaries. “Let’s face it, they’re not good anymore,” the ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer famously declaimed after the Patriots got creamed by the Kansas City Chiefs early in the 2014 season; the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that year. “Tom Brady is going to be a bum,” Max Kellerman, another ESPN analyst, said before the 2016 season, predicting that his career was about to take a dive; Brady won Super Bowls in two of the next three years.
The run of Patriot dominance is so long that if you watch TV clips from games in Brady’s first season, they’re from a different era of technological history: The resolution isn’t as crisp; the replays are grainy. A lot of the iconic commentators from then are now long retired (John Madden) if not dead (Pat Summerall). When Brady started his first game, Friends was the most popular show on television, and ER was still the third-most-popular. The nation was still reeling from 9/11. The second NFL game Tom Brady ever started, on October 7, 2001, coincided with the launch of air strikes on Afghanistan, just half an hour before kickoff. Some Americans who will be casting their first presidential ballots next fall had not yet been born.
Over time, Patriots fans grew to worship—the word is not too strong—Tom Brady. Non-Patriot fans grew to fear and despise him. But everyone, fan and foe, benefited from the Patriot greatness he and Belichick produced. Because who wants a mediocre nemesis, an Evil Empire that is not fearsomely invincible? Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine would hardly quicken the pulse in the same way if they had the career win-loss record of, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Horror movies would lose their punch if the monster didn’t keep coming back, again and again, sometimes even after a stake seems to have been driven through its heart. Which is why on Saturday night, long after the game was over, Twitter was littered with comments from Tom Brady haters about how they were still worried the Patriots were somehow going to come back to win the game.
Though it’s hard to remember this now—because Patriot greatness has spanned a full generation—a time did exist when Tom Brady was not widely reviled outside New England, but rather was the plucky underdog, the little backup quarterback who could. Whose coach didn’t trust him to throw the ball and was limited to managing a careful, ball-control offense. Who was a 14-point underdog in that first Super Bowl, in 2002. Boston had not yet entered its latest period of overweening sports dominance: The Red Sox were still mired in eight decades of flamboyant futility; the Celtics hadn’t won a championship since the ’80s; the Bruins hadn’t won one since the ’70s. Brady himself was not yet the actress-impregnating, supermodel-marrying, business-empire-promoting, multimillionaire magazine-cover icon he would become. In fact, he lived, rather charmingly, with his sister, in a working-class city south of Boston.
Were it not for a fluke (and nearly lethal) hit by New York Jet defensive back Mo Lewis on Drew Bledsoe in a routine early-season game in 2001, one wonders if Brady would have ever transcended the permanent backup status for which, by draft number (he was picked in the sixth round) and general appearance (have you seen his shirtless photo from the 2000 NFL combine? Or the video of his 40-meter-dash there?), he seemed destined. Maybe his innate talent and drive would have propelled him to greatness in any case, but it’s interesting to contemplate a counterfactual history where he remained mired in relative anonymity—or where, who knows, he goes on to end up in the baseball Hall of Fame. (In the late 1990s, the Montreal Expos had drafted him as a catcher, projecting him as an all-star.)
In truth, the Patriots may have been decaying, as empires do, into late-stage decadence for a while: Spygate, Deflategate, Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial and suicide, owner Bob Kraft’s charges in Florida, the misbegotten Antonio Brown experiment, the organization’s friendly relationship with Donald Trump. Critics say this revealed the Dorian Gray–style inner rot that made the Patriots easier to hate.
For Patriots fans, the astonishing run of Brady-Belichick dominance was a gift we had done nothing to earn, like white privilege or Lutheran grace, but from which we benefited nonetheless. The association with excellence—more than that, with greatness, with insurmountable and immortal achievements, with the aura of invincibility—felt good. It conferred on Patriot Nation a borrowed transcendence of normal human mediocrity (we have the greatest coach ever, the greatest quarterback ever, the greatest team ever), without our even having to leave the couch. In some tiny symbolic way, it obscured the horrible finality of death. We will die, but what the Patriots accomplished from 2001 to 2019 will live forever. Or so we like to pretend.
And now that the run is over, what we’re experiencing feels something like grief. Or maybe, less nobly, like withdrawal: We’d become addicted to winning, and as happens with addiction, no amount of winning would ever satisfy. Six Super Bowls should have been enough—fans in many cities would be happy with just one—but we craved more, needed more.
The pain of losing causes me to reflect on the oddness of feeling any emotion at all in vicarious reaction to a bunch of people I’ve never met putting an oblong object across a chalked-out line on a field more times than a bunch of other people I’ve never met wearing a different-color uniform. Why do we even care? Sports fandom is spilt nationalism, arbitrarily channeled tribalism, productively sublimated war impulse—which is why these games evoke such strong feelings, and why the culture lavishes so much money on them, and why they may be, ultimately, a social good. But what the wonderworking of Brady and Belichick engendered in Patriots fans was a kind of civic religion in which faith was rewarded far more than the odds, or the nature of the NFL, should have allowed—a faith both stronger and more benign than many other kinds these days. Now that faith is shaken. The grace of Brady is not everlasting: The Patriots will be lucky to go 9–7 next year. It feels sad.
No one, I know, will shed a tear for grieving Patriots fans. (If there’s an emotion non-Patriots fans are feeling, it’s schadenfreude, deeply savored for being so long deferred.) But the end of the dynasty is everyone’s loss: We shall not see its like again.