By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — What is a once-in-a-lifetime comeback if it happens twice?
What is the level of heartbreak reached when that comeback is completed, only for it to all be rendered meaningless in a flash of a few seconds?
And what in the wide freaking world of sports is there to say about the football game that took place in Tampa on Sunday afternoon?
It was a game which the Bucs lost to the Rams countless times. While falling behind 10-0, then 20-3, they were toast. In failing to protect Tom Brady, in blowing coverages against Cooper Kupp and getting worked by Odell Beckham Jr., in sending kickoffs out of bounds, in missing a field goal, in throwing incompletions on fourth down several times, the Bucs lost this game multiple times over.
But when Tom Brady is the quarterback, no game is ever lost. And though they trailed 27-3 midway through the third quarter, Brady and the Bucs channeled their inner 2016 Patriots and came back. All the way back.
After Kupp fumbled with the Rams up by 21, Brady hit Scotty Miller to convert a fourth-and-9, keeping alive a drive that ended with a Leonard Fournette touchdown run.
Following a frantic two-play stretch that saw Brady strip-sacked before an errant snap gave the ball back to the Bucs at midfield, the quarterback went 3-for-3 for 77 yards and a touchdown to cut Los Angeles’ lead to seven.
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) January 23, 2022
And after Cam Akers fumbled while the Rams were looking to run out the clock, Brady made it hurt. Of course he did. Brady threw to Cameron Brate on a third-and-10 at the Rams’ 18-yard line. A review showed that Brate was down a hair short of the line to gain, and with the world expecting a Brady QB sneak, the quarterback handed to Fournette on the fourth down play. Fournette broke a tackle in the backfield and made his way to the end zone.
The PAT was good. The score was tied. Brady and the Bucs had gone from being down 27-3 to being tied at 27 with 42 seconds left in the game.
Of course, the 28-3 comeback in Super Bowl LI vs. the Falcons wasn’t all about Brady. Dont’a Hightower forced a turnover with a strip sack. Trey Flowers (sack) and Chris Long (holding penalty drawn) pushed the Falcons out of field goal range, too. The sextet of Julian Edelman, James White, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Martellus Bennett was unbelievable.
The same is true in this one. The second-half strips by Ndamukong Suh and Jamel Dean, the recoveries by Sean Murphy-Bunting, Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul, the runs by Fournette, the late protection from second and third-string right tackles, they were all — obviously — huge parts of the equation.
But really, we’re left with one common denominator from two of the greatest postseason comebacks of all time. His name is Tom Brady.
The Buccaneers trailed by 24 points (27-3) in the 3rd quarter vs the Rams
There have only been 4 teams to come back and win a playoff game after trailing by 24+ in the 2nd half
Most recent: Tom Brady's Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI#LARvsTB
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 23, 2022
This one, though, didn’t have the happy ending for Tom. The Bucs’ defensive backfield — which had its fair share of issues against good quarterbacks all year long — lost track of the best receiver in the NFL. Kupp got behind Antione Winfield Jr. Matthew Stafford lobbed the ball to the perfect spot.
All that work to come back from 24 points down was wiped away.
COOP.@RamsNFL AT THE 10 YARD LINE. WOW.
— NFL (@NFL) January 23, 2022
Stafford spiked it. Matt Gay kicked the chip shot. The Rams left Raymond James Stadium with the win.
Everybody else left with disbelief.
There was no way that had just happened again. And there was no way that had just happened again but didn’t even matter in the end.
Once again, Brady was front and center for a football event that nobody could believe.
Sometimes, the sun has shined on Brady in those moments — Super Bowl LI, the Snow Bowl, Super Bowl XXXVI, the Malcolm Butler pick, the playoff win in San Diego in ’06 or over the Ravens in ’14 or in Kansas City in ’18, to name a few.
Other times, he hasn’t been so fortunate. Sunday’s loss joins a list with both Giants Super Bowls, the second Eagles Super Bowl, the ’06 AFC title game in Indy, the ’15 AFC title game in Denver, and the other playoff loss in Denver way back in ’05 as incredible, historic playoff football games where Brady’s team ultimately was dealt an L.
That Sunday’s game came amid speculation and reports that Brady could very well walk away from the sport of football helps to crystallize the hand that Brady has played in writing NFL history for more than 20 years. When Brady finally does leave the sport for good, the league will sorely miss the man who cannot be replaced. Fans and haters alike can agree without issue on one thing: the fella has a knack for playing unbelievably compelling football games. It’s a real Maximus Decimus Meridius situation. And this year’s finale was as good as any.
The fact that Brady did everything that he did this year at the age of 44 is something that the sports world at large hasn’t properly acknowledged all along. It was incredible. Historic. Legendary. Insane. Unprecedented. We’ll never again see anybody play that well at that age. It was a marvelous, marvelous season.
But, well, it didn’t end where Brady’s seasons end half the time. He didn’t reach the Super Bowl, he obviously didn’t win the Super Bowl, and he’s now heading into an offseason where — for the first time ever — his mindset is not in line with the goal of playing football forever. Now, he’s apparently going to give some real thought to retiring. After leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns, after almost certainly finishing in the top two in MVP voting, after throwing the second-most passes in any NFL season ever at the age of 44, after lasting through 17 games largely unscathed, Brady may walk away.
On the one hand, his departure from the game is long overdue. What he did at age 40 was preposterous, let alone what he’s done at 43 and 44. The train should have left the station years ago, but it’s kept on rumbling, producing a Super Bowl in New England, a Super Bowl in Tampa, and one unforgettable comeback on this sunny Sunday on the Sun Coast.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” Brady said when asked about retirement following the 30-27 loss. “So we’ll just take it day by day and see where we’re at.”
Brady had already told the NBC broadcast crew that ideally, his career ends with a Super Bowl. Just as ideally, that end wouldn’t come this year. At the same time, maybe not. In Brady’s words, “there’s a lot that’s inconclusive.” That seems to be quite true.
So while we won’t get an answer on Brady’s future, Sunday’s roller coaster was a perfect celebration of his past and his present. He didn’t win, because nobody — not even Tom Brady — can win every game. But he did deliver. More often than not, and more consistently than anyone before him or after him, Brady always delivered. Even in a loss, even at age 44, even with a shorthanded and hobbled offense, Brady delivered.
Some day, those deliveries will no longer be made. Everyone — fans of Brady and those who claim to be sick of Brady — better hope that day gets delayed at least one more year. The football world is a better place when Tom Brady is on a football field.