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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks off of the field after a loss to the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 4, 2020.

Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

A while back, the New Yorker ran a football-themed cartoon that said a lot about life.

A man is watching a game on TV. His dog is loitering behind the couch. The man calls out, “I can hear you quietly rooting for the Patriots back there.”

The cartoon works because everyone – including people who don’t care about the Patriots or follow the NFL or give a damn about sports – understands what’s going on. This is projection. The Patriots are the thing you love to hate to love. They inspire obsession.

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This is more complicated than liking a thing you feel you shouldn’t like. It’s liking that feeling of not liking liking that thing. Confused? Of course, you are. You love the Patriots. And, God help you, you don’t even realize it.

This is why New England losing in the first round of the NFL playoffs over the weekend has caused some consternation. This isn’t supposed to happen. It unsettles the proper order of events. Having happened, there is the sense that things may not be quite the same again.

On a personal note, I believe I guaranteed* a Patriots win (*guarantees in the news media carry no monetary value). The exact wording was “the Patriots aren’t going to lose on Saturday because Tom Brady won’t let them.” A good litigator or a semi-decent syntactic philosopher could get me out of that one. I’ll plead no contest on this one.

But admit it. Even when Brady was backed up on his own goal line, trailing the visiting Tennessee Titans by one, with less than 20 seconds remaining, you were thinking, “Difficult. Not impossible.”

Evidently, impossible. By the ancient laws of football, one supposes this makes the Titans the kings of all they survey.

If this wasn’t the end of the Brady Era, it certainly felt that way. This isn’t Brady’s fault. The team surrounding him is mediocre at best. It played at a level below that on Saturday. New England’s psychological advantage – that feeling built up over two decades that Brady and the Patriots always find a way – gradually bled away with each dropped ball and bad decision. The Titans didn’t win so much as refuse to let themselves get transfixed by the Brady stare.

This is bad news for a bunch of people, first and foremost the NFL. It has just lost its top salesman at the start of the postholiday rush.

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If you got every football fan who either loves or hates the Patriots in a room, you’d need an awfully big room. Because that would be every single football fan. I’m not sure everyone in Tennessee cares about the Titans and I’m pretty sure no one outside the state does. They aren’t underdogs. They’re just strays.

It’s bad news for the Patriots. Brady is now a free agent. He’s soon to be 43 and has talked about playing until he’s 45. He’s got some decisions to make.

Brady certainly didn’t treat the postgame as a farewell, which even the most sanguine pros cannot help but do. No long waves to the home crowd. No lingering an unusual amount of time on the field. Brady hugged a few people and then jogged off to the tunnel. It didn’t appear that he’d even looked at the crowd.

He went into his presser wearing a preposterously oversized tuque and a tatty shirt.

If he’s leaving, these will have been his final comments as a Patriot. That video will be replayed on a loop. He looks like a garden-gnome gigolo, and not an expensive one.

Something tells me a man as image-conscious as Brady will have taken that into account. He wanted this to look like the postgame of any ordinary game, one of hundreds.

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He got the pro-forma questions about his future. Brady played it tight. Whenever he was about to get himself into trouble with a declarative statement, he said, “… you know …” instead. But he didn’t sound like a guy wrestling with his future.

Is there any possibility of retirement, someone asked.

“Uh, you know, I would say it’s pretty unlikely … yeah, uh … hopefully unlikely.”

Hopefully? Brady makes it sound as though he has only a part of the say in whether he returns to football. Which is ludicrous. All but a handful of teams would kill to have him. If not for the quality of his play (still high), then for the merchandising.

Brady’s issue is that he can’t be seen to give in to the inevitable too easily. The Patriots require an overhaul. It’s hard not to think how much better they might have been if either of the Antonio Brown trade and the will-he-won’t-he Rob Gronkowski return hadn’t blown up on them. Just one elite receiver might’ve made a world of difference.

The Brady Decision will drag on for a while because it’s an ego boost for Brady and it’s good for business. People need to be reminded how much they will miss him when he’s gone. Those people include the Patriots. Once Brady goes, this team starts the process of becoming the Titans – a club not good enough or interesting enough to bother hating.

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Once it got near the finish, it was the hate that kept Brady afloat. He never stopped being the guy everyone underestimated – the college back-up, the sixth-round pick, the playoff fill-in.

No one has ever been more big league, but Brady never got big league. He never took it for granted. He’s spent his whole career trying to shove his achievements in people’s faces. That he’s always done it with a blank smile instead of a sneer doesn’t make him any less smouldering.

This is not a person who’s going to leave voluntarily. In this regard and a few others, Brady reminds me of former Toronto Blue Jay Jose Bautista. He doesn’t know how to stay down once he’s been knocked out.

Like Bautista, someone will eventually have to make Brady’s decision for him.

But not yet. Not for a while.

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