MINNEAPOLIS — The duel was over and a younger, unlikely gun by the name of Nick Foles was at the podium in the M.V.P. room. Tom Brady knows that piece of real estate well. He had occupied it — no, owned it — after four superb performances in his five Super Bowl victories.
But now Brady was relegated to the other side of the room, 30 yards away and separated by a bolt of fabric hanging from the ceiling deep inside U.S. Bank Stadium. The news media horde that scuffled and pushed before him was cranky.
How, the reporters asked in a dozen different ways, could the New England Patriots lose to a Philadelphia Eagles team with a backup quarterback?
Brady remained unflappable, just as he had been while throwing for 505 yards and three touchdowns over the previous four hours in a back-and-forth 41-33 loss.
Brady’s head swiveled to a questioner.
“We never had control of the game,” he said.
He looked the next one in the eye.
“They played better than us,” he said.
Then, the grenade was lobbed: “Will you be back next year?”
Brady, 40, let his lip curl into a semi-smile and searched in the vicinity from where it had been tossed.
“I expect to be back, but we’ll see,” he said, trying to beat back his irritation.
Ultimately, he could not.
“It’s 15 minutes after the game ended,” he said. “Have to process this a little bit. Don’t see why I wouldn’t be back.”
There it was out in the open: the question that will consume worried New Englanders throughout the off-season.
Brady did nothing to diminish his standing over 60 minutes of football. Trailing by 22-12 at halftime, he led the Patriots on three straight touchdown drives. He pinpointed his receivers like a sharpshooter at a carnival arcade, beating back the Eagles’ celebrations each time they seemed to have put the Pats away.
There was little doubt during much of the game that Brady was the best player on the field. That’s no knock on Foles, who finished with 373 passing yards and three touchdowns (plus a fourth he caught himself) and who, most important of all, brought Philadelphia its first Super Bowl championship.
Foles all but levitated with joy afterward. He showed up for postgame interviews with his shoulder pads still on and an aw-shucks smile on his face. Heck yeah, he had been nervous.
“I’ve never been here before,” he said. “So there are normal nerves — you’ve got butterflies. It’s a big game. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. But I felt good, felt calm. I think the big thing that helped me was knowing I didn’t have to be Superman.”
But Foles, 29, was Superman — at least for one day. He knew it, too, and tried to explain how it felt. “Time does stop,” he said.
Don’t tell Brady that.
Brady had prompted the postgame questions about his return by making no secret that he intended to play the game for a long time.
Brady’s embrace of the New Age and his fierce determination to soldier on seem to have had repercussions. He was blamed first for freezing out and then for forcing the midseason trade of his backup and possible heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo, to the San Francisco 49ers.
It became a distraction, and because Brady brought on that distraction, he got crosswise with his coach, Bill Belichick, who rules his team with a firm hand. How firm?
Belichick benched cornerback Malcolm Butler here on Sunday, the same Malcolm Butler whose goal-line interception of Russell Wilson three years ago delivered the coach and his team their fourth Super Bowl title.
Why? Belichick refused to say.
It would be foolish to write off the Patriots after this loss to Philadelphia in an extremely well-played game. But the strain was showing.
New England’s usually free-spirited tight end Rob Gronkowski acknowledged that he was considering retirement. He will turn only 29 during the off-season, but he has a long injury history, including a hit to the head in the A.F.C. championship game that sent him to the sidelines and threatened to keep him out of the Super Bowl.
“I am definitely going to look at my future, for sure,” Gronkowski said. “I am going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I am at.”
Belichick’s staff will certainly undergo a makeover, too; in the next few days, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is expected to be named head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and the defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was officially announced as the Detroit Lions’ new head coach on Monday.
Leave it to Brady to sum up his and his team’s discomfort.
“Losing sucks,” he said. “If you want to be world champs, you have to play in this game.”
No matter what anyone thinks, he knows time hasn’t run out on him.
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