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.)