MINNEAPOLIS -- The greatest quarterback who ever lived, and perhaps the greatest athlete in the history of professional sports, sat, elbows on his knees, for what must have seemed like an eternity. The game-winning Super Bowl drive that he surely envisioned in his mind was over almost before it started. Tom Brady's season was effectively over.
Brandon Graham had managed to do something no one on the Eagles could accomplish all evening: harass Brady, and make him even moderately uncomfortable. What seemed impossible for four quarters had just become Brady's reality at the very moment when yet another legacy-defining drive was in his midst.
But Graham had intervened, plowing through the line, knocking the ball free while Brady was about to pass, and the Eagles had possession and a five-point lead with roughly two minutes to play. And as Eagles defenders ran like giddy children to their sideline and celebrated their looming Lombardi Trophy, there Brady sat, his backside square on the 28-yard line, right on the middle of the large Super Bowl LII logo painted on the turf at US Bank Stadium.
Befuddled. Shocked. Frozen, if only momentarily.
"We had a chance there," said Brady, now 5-3 in Super Bowls. "And they made a great play."
By the time he took the field again, the Eagles had bled the clock under 90 seconds and converted a field goal, rendering the remainder of Brady's outlandish performance irrelevant in the context of Super Bowl LII, though he did manage to get set up a desperation Hail Mary as time expired of this 41-33 defeat.
But none of it should be forgotten. Not that 50-plus yard heave, nor any of the passes he completed of 23 yards or longer (nine! to five teammates).
"The guy is unbelievable," Foles said of his counterpart. "He was unbelievable tonight. You can't say enough about him."
"He's great," said receiver Danny Amendola, who shined in the role of injured star slot receiver Julian Edelman and led New England with 152 receiving yards. "He's the greatest. He's the best quarterback, the best teammate, a good person. And I love him."
The quarterback who led the most memorable comeback in NFL history just one year ago had now mustered the greatest individual performance in Super Bowl history on Sunday night, if not league history, and somehow it was not enough. He carried New England on a night when its defense was a failure, when the run game was an afterthought, when a usually reliable kicker came up empty. Brady single-handedly ripped to shreds what had been considered one the league's premier defenses, but even his heroics (28 of 48 for 505 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while throwing for over 100 yards to three different pass catchers) could not carry New England to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
"We didn't play good enough defense," Bill Belichick muttered through parsed lips, wearing defeat as always like a virus. "We didn't play good enough in the kicking game."
Even in defeat, however, what Brady did accomplish further buttresses his iconic stature. He won MVP at age 40, and he may have just played his best game. He must be considered right up there with Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan as the most dominant individuals in the history of pro sports in this country. Once again, he overcame a double-digit deficit in a Super Bowl -- if ever-so briefly -- but his defense has no answers for Eagles play-caller Doug Pederson or backup quarterback Nick Foles, the game's MVP, and no amount of Brady magic was going to overcome that in this setting.
Brady accounted for 290 passing yards on those nine connections of 23 yards or more alone. Let that settle in for a minute. He averaged 12 yards per attempt and 23 yards per completion in the first half. New England's running backs carried the ball just 19 times combined, and the Eagles knew right away this was all going to be on Brady's shoulder. Yet still he threw strike after strike, cutting into the heart of a unit that had gone a month without allowing more than 10 points in a game.
"We found some spots in their defense where we could get the ball," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, about to take over the Indianapolis Colts, said in typical understated fashion.
If you want to pick nits with Brady, you could knock him for failing to catch an option pass from Danny Amendola ("Danny made a good throw, I just didn't make the play;" Brady said) and Brady seemed flummoxed himself, with some early drives that bogged down in the first half, leading to field goal attempts (and one ugly miss).
"We had a lot of yards, but we didn't have enough points," said Brady, though I'd point out 33 should be enough -- had Carson Wentz been healthy, might the Pats have surrendered a 50-burger in a title game?
But even by Brady's most lofty standards, this was a personal tour de force. In Brady's last four Super Bowls he has combined to go 135 of 201 (67 percent) for 1,575 yards (394 per game!) with 11 touchdowns to four interceptions for a rating of 100.65. Tonight, Brady became the first quarterback to surpass 10,000 playoff passing yards (no one else even has 7,500) and 70 playoff passing touchdowns (no one else has more than 45, including Brady's idol, Joe Montana). Brady now has a career mark of 18 touchdowns to five interceptions in his Super Bowl career, and is 71-31 in the postseason.
So the margin a single score, 2:21 on the clock and the ball in his hands, all of America, if not the world, shared a singular thought: Brady is going to do it again. Only this time Graham finally punctured the line on a day when New England had been superb in the trenches and, sensing he was in a one-on-one match up with a guard, he made his move ("Tom Brady's arm was right there, and I went for the ball," Graham said).
"It just didn't happen this time," said tight end Rob Gronkowski, a second-half force after mustering just nine yards in the first half, of another Brady storybook ending. Gronk was low-key deflated for sure. But seemed something less than broken. He knows Brady will be back in his huddle. He's banking on being back here again.
It's well documented that Brady continues to prosper with age. The last five seasons have been arguably the greatest five-year stretch of his career. He is on pace to pass Peyton Manning for the all-time touchdown and yardage marks next season. Brady has two years left on his contract; his thirst for victory remains unquenchable, and the Patriots will surely be among the NFL's favorites for glory again in 2018. So while tonight, he was a loser -- through no real act of his own -- he may still depart the game as the ultimate winner one day, going out on his terms.
Sometimes you stand on a podium with the game's great chalice hoisted above your head. Sometimes you sit stunned between the hashmarks as chaos unfolds on the opposing sideline.
"Losing sucks," Brady said. "But that's part of it."