BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — So Tom Brady will get to decide when it's over. He gets to write his own ending to the longest-running, highest-rated television series in history.
The Brady Show (6:30 p.m. Sunday, NBC) – and its recent spin-off, Tom vs. Time (Facebook) – will unveil what many believe could be a final episode Sunday when the Patriots and their 40-year-old quarterback play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
Nearly 700-million have watched seven of the season finales that ended in the NFL championship game over the past 18 years. Predictably, the Patriots have won five of them.
There's been some serious plot twists from the outset. Brady won Super Bowl XXXVI, his first, right after 9/11. U2 played at halftime as the names of the victims in the terrorist attacks were rolled from the ceiling of the Superdome. Patriots. Red, white and blue.
But there was Spygate before Super Bowl XLII and DeFlategate, which earned him a four-game suspension to start 2016.
The addictive series ended with a suspenseful final scene last year that even the most loyal Patriots fans thought was too fictional when Brady threw a pick six and watched his team fall behind 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
This turned out to be a cruel joke.
Brady, left for dead sprawled out on the turf of NRG Stadium in Houston, had a dream sequence that rivaled the "Who Shot J.R.?" season three finale of "Dallas" on CBS in 1980. To the soundtrack of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing,'' Brady rallied the Patriots to a 34-28 overtime win, the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
But this time, we want resolution, good or bad. Most of the country seems to be rooting for a catastrophic climax to the series.
Brady, clearly, isn't ready for his character to be killed off yet. Remember earlier this year when writers poured over scripts as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls before finally deciding Brady's heir apparent, the younger, handsome Jimmy Garoppolo, had to be traded to San Francisco?
One of the executive producers, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, said Brady "has earned the right to have that be a decision he makes when he wants to make it."
Said Brady, "Why does everyone want me to retire so bad? I don't get it. I'm having fun. The team's doing good. I know I'm a little bit older than most of the guys, but I'm really enjoying it. Obviously, I enjoy the experience of playing in this game. This has been obviously a dream come true many times over. It takes a lot of hard work to get here, and I think our team is working hard … We're playing against a great football team. So I'm not thinking about retirement. I'm thinking about the Super Bowl and trying to win the most important game of the year."
Brady's character has never really grown up. He's aged so gracefully that he's supposed to be 40 but still looks 20. As if pliability exercises and eating avocado ice cream can do that.
This week, there have been a lot of red herrings that may lead you to different conclusions.
Brady's nemesis this year is Philadelphia, the NFC Champion who looks to be as big of an underdog at its beloved Rocky. (Sylvester Stallone has confirmed he will not make a cameo Sunday).
The Eagles lost starting quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL a few weeks before the playoffs. Nick Foles, who thought about quitting football two years ago, is the best fill-in quarterback since Shane Falco in "The Replacements," played by Keanu Reeves.
You know if Foles wins this thing, it's really just a re-write from Brady's premier season as the Super Bowl quarterback. Are the writers running out of material?
Brady, the sixth-round pick from Michigan, replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl. (Remember the snowy Tuck Rule episode?)
In Super Bowl XXXVI, as 14-point underdogs, Brady rallies his team in the final two minutes to a comeback 20-17 win over the Rams on Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal. It was the first time the Super Bowl was won by a score on the final play. The episode drew 83.3 million viewers and a hit was born.
Since then, not much has changed. The Patriots, and their curmudgeon coach Bill Belichick, who makes Al Pacino's Sharks coach Tony D'Amato in Any Given Sunday look jovial by comparison, have won Super Bowls by 3, 3, 3, lost by 3, lost by 4 and won by 4 and 6.
"It takes a lot to win this game,'' Brady said. "For us, it's gone down to the last play almost every time. We're playing against a great football team that's played great all season. Dynamic in all phases of the game. I know probably a lot of the country, those (31) other cities are not rooting for us. You know, that's okay. I think that's just the way sports are in our country.''
Twice, the season finale veered into a tragic tableau of the Patriots losing to the Giants. In Super Bowl XLII, a ball stuck to the helmet of Giants receiver David Tyree on fourth-and-10. In XLVI Brady's super model wife Gisele Bundchen yells by an elevator at Lucas Oil Stadium, "My husband cannot (bleeping) throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times.''
Rick Stroud and Tom Jones look at how the Eagles, among others, have turned around their franchise within two years and why that hasn’t happened with the Bucs under Jason Licht. #Eagles #Bucs #SuperBowl @TomWJones @NFLSTROUD @TB_Times https://t.co/kYmChsxqoY— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 1, 2018
"They're all unique in my memory,'' Brady said. "The ones that we lost are very painful. When it doesn't go well, you wake up the next day and you're thinking it was a nightmare. The wins are just incredible joy.''
Until recently, Brady's family was rarely a subplot. But last he was understandably emotional about his mother, who is a survivor of breast cancer. This week, before he arrived at the Super Bowl Monday, he cut a weekly radio show short on WEEI because a co-host had called his 5-year-old daughter a "pissant," after watching one of the Tom vs. Time episodes.
On Thursday, Brady caught flak on social media for demanding three-second kiss on the lips from his 10-year-old son.
"Just knowing they're here is very special,'' Brady said of his kids. "Knowing they can understand what's going on. And having this part of their growing up. It's very special for me, hopefully it's special for them. My 10-year-old boy is really into it. My 8-year-old boy, not so much. And my 5-year-old girl is my little cheerleader.''
There's a myriad ways the series has found ways to heighten the Brady's heroism to Pats fans. He's the boogeyman to everyone else. His only real fault seems to be his unquenchable drive to play quarterback for the Patriots when almost anybody in his position with five Super Bowl rings would simply enjoy the wife, the kids, the cars, the house and the money.
"You know, I love playing the sport,'' Brady said. Now that's pretty cliché for a character with so many layers.
Brady's character has been though a lot. The comeback drives for field goals against the Rams and Panthers. The improbable end zone interception against Seattle by Malcolm Butler on second and goal from the 1 in Super Bowl XLIX. Hacking back to the 28-3 deficit to the Falcons, owner Robert Kraft had 283 diamonds placed in the championship rings. Mocking keeps the Patriots true to form.
This week, what looked like an acceptance speech by Brady for winning the MVP award surfaced.
The validity of any screen characters is whether we can imagine them when the cameras stop.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more concentrated collection of pure Patriots fandom than inside the "Bledsoe room," where Paul Shimkonis has amassed 25 years of nearly everything you can put a Pats logo on. #Patriots @Patriots #SuperBowl @gregauman https://t.co/xt4HhFXwgR— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) February 2, 2018
Belichick seemingly can coach forever, but some have speculated he may want a fresh start.
Splitting up Brady and Belichick would be a twisty path not normally taken in this series.
"There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom," Belichick said.
Maybe Brady's blunt admission that he hasn't taken the time to consider his longevity or accomplishments in this series is a clue to its conclusion.
"I'm still in the middle of it. It's like a marathon,'' Brady said. "At mile 23 of a 26-mile marathon, you're not thinking about, "Man, what were those 23 miles like?' You're just trying to finish. You're trying to get through 24, 25 and 26. That's how I feel. I'm still in the middle of my career. I'm definitely closer to the end than the beginning. I love this experience of playing this game. I've been fortunate to be here.''
To jump on Brady's metaphor, none of us can see the finish line from here.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud