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Tom Brady’s career is the NFL equivalent of the often-used Undertaker GIF. Just when everyone thinks it’s OK to finally bury the veteran, he rises to the occasion. Eventually, even Mark Calaway was forced to retire the gimmick after a long and fruitful run. Before then, he provided memorable moment after memorable moment.
Remarkably, Brady on Monday did something he had never accomplished after it looked like the New Orleans Saints had his number once again. In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 17-16 victory the 45-year-old future Hall of Famer threw for the last score with only eight seconds remaining at the snap—which marked the latest game-winning touchdown pass in Brady’s historic career, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“Just like we drew it up,” Brady joked with reporters after the contest.
The Bucs now own a 6-6 record and 1.5-game lead in the NFC South. Brady’s helping to pull another win from the jaws of defeat serves as a double-edged sword.
Simple appreciation of what he’s done must be savored now, because his career will be over relatively soon. Conversely, the win sets up disappointment down the road.
On the positive side, Brady’s teams have benefited with him behind center. Monday’s result was the 44th comeback victory for the three-time league MVP, which broke a tie between Brady and his old rival, Peyton Manning. The performance also was the second instance of a Brady-led squad’s winning after trailing by 13 or more points in the fourth quarter. The other? Super Bowl LI. (Sorry, Atlanta Falcons fans.)
The outcome and how it came about shouldn’t blur who the Buccaneers are, though. Brady’s potential last dance is fraught with obstacles.
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Before looking toward the long term, Tampa Bay must handle business in the coming weeks. The schedule is manageable with an upcoming meeting against the San Francisco 49ers—when this year’s Mr. Irrelevant, quarterback Brock Purdy, will make his first career start—and teams with losing records to round out the final three weeks of play.
Aside from the Cincinnati Bengals game in Week 15, four of the five remaining contests are winnable. The Buccaneers could win 10 on their way to a second consecutive division title.
History shows they’re capable of doing so. After a slow start to the 2020 season, Brady and Co. hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. A significant difference exists between then and now, though. That year, Brady had just signed with the organization and needed to build a rapport with his receivers and rhythm within the offense.
Now, Tampa Bay is clearly deficient in certain areas.
The offensive line is almost completely rebuilt from a year ago. Tristan Wirfs’ ankle injury last week only exacerbated an already glaring issue. The losses of left guard Ali Marpet (retirement), right guard Alex Cappa (free agency) and center Ryan Jensen (knee injury) created a lack of continuity up front front. Even bringing in Shaq Mason can do only so much when the unit is playing together for the first time and continuing to evolve.
A byproduct of rebuilding an offensive line on the fly is a significant downturn in the running game. At 73.3 rushing yards per contest, Tampa Bay owns the league’s worst ground game by a significant margin (11.4 yards to be exact).
Furthermore, Brady is having one of the worst years of his career when it comes to pushing the ball down the field. The Buccaneers had one of the league’s best wide receiver corps over the last two seasons, especially with Mike Evans on the outside since he’s an elite vertical threat.
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Yet the quarterback’s 31 completion percentage on throws 20 or more yards down the field entering Monday’s contest was Brady’s worst since the ’14 campaign, per ESPN. Brady missed multiple deep attempts against the Saints and didn’t help to stretch the field. Only one connection, to Evans, was over 20 yards.
Instead, defenses are now constricting the playing area. They don’t have to worry much about Tampa Bay’s running attack or the threat of a big play. Brady also can’t lean on the tight end position as much after his favorite target, Rob Gronkowski, retired.
Even so, Tampa Bay found a win to win…with a little help from New Orleans.
“I wish we would score more points against them,” Brady said. “They make it really hard.”
In the Saints’ case, Dennis Allen’s squad had the game in hand bud lost because of poor late-game management and mental mistakes. New Orleans had two opportunities to close out the contest. All it had to do was sustain a drive.
With 6:11 remaining and a 13-point lead, Mark Ingram II inexplicably ran out of bounds short of a first down without being touched. On the next play, 3rd-and-1 from Tampa Bay’s 44-yard line, the Saints threw an incomplete pass instead of just running the ball. The Buccaneers responded with a 91-yard drive for their first touchdown.
During the following series, New Orleans went three-and-out with a pair of pass calls, including a sack on second down.
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The Saints lost this meeting as much as the Buccaneers earned the victory. The setup is important, because it shows how fortunate Tampa Bay was to reach .500. Todd Bowles’ group isn’t playing particularly well, and a late-game rally doesn’t portend a significant postseason run.
As for Brady and where he goes from this point, much will be decided in the offseason. The 23-year veteran isn’t under contract beyond this season. He has said he would like to play until at least 2024, though his highly publicized divorce from Gisele Bündchen could change that.
If the NFL’s all-time leading passer chooses not to return after this season, the type of moments seen from him Monday may never happen again with only five regular-season games left to play. Brady will walk away as the greatest player of all time. He’s earned that designation. But he’s no different than any professional athlete who preceded him. Eventually, Father Time wins.
A void will be left without the seven-time Super Bowl champion. But it’s far from time to let his career rest. Brady appears to have one more age-defying stand left in him, and everyone should enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.