EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published before Josh McDaniels withdrew from the Indianapolis Colts' head-coaching position, as reported by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Brady was just steps off the field when he stopped with his arms crossed and looked up at a TV monitor mounted high on a wall outside the New England Patriots' locker room. Rare is the football celebration that goes on without Brady, but a stage was being set up for someone else Sunday night, so Brady drilled down to the details instead.
He was looking to see if there was pass interference committed on his final Hail Mary throw to Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. It was too late by then, of course. The confetti had already rained down on the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-33 upset victors of Super Bowl LII. And the neat symmetry of Nick Foles being the first backup to win the Super Bowl since Brady did it himself was almost certainly lost on the man who had seen his sixth title slip away and knew now that his team was sliding into the greatest uncertainty since Drew Bledsoe got hurt and Brady got his first start in 2001. Brady watched the replay and then kept walking.
All losing Super Bowl locker rooms are silent, but the Patriots didn't seem sad so much as there was a frisson of anxiety and tension mixed in with the piles of discarded tape and the jerseys being stuffed into a trunk for shipment home. The end comes quickly after these games, the nameplates stripped from the lockers little more than 30 minutes after the final gun, the page turning on an entire season in the time it takes to get dressed and head to the bus. And the end seems to be rushing at the Patriots all of a sudden now, too, stripping them of their air of invincibility the way the Eagles stripped Brady of the ball on the game's most critical play.
Brady was in the hallway just after meeting with reporters when NFL Network's Shaun O'Hara stopped him. They spoke quietly and embraced. O'Hara was on the Giants team that pulled off an upset of the Patriots even greater than the Eagles performed, when they ended the Patriots' 2007 undefeated season.
The Patriots were devastated after that loss. The mood around the team this time felt even edgier than it did then. This had, in many ways, been an uncharacteristic performance for New England -- there was bad tackling and missed special teams plays and even some poor situational football. Brady said the Pats never got to play the game on their terms. Head coach Bill Belichick said they weren't able to perform at their best.
The dissection of the X's and O's will come later. What was most striking about each encounter with a Patriot was that each person faced questions about the future, about the unknown. They are the kinds of questions that usually inundate losing teams, the ones who know a rebuilding is in order. They do not usually weigh on the Patriots, who have now lost their third Super Bowl with Brady and Belichick against five victories, but who now have to wonder if they will ever make it back to another one.
"I expect to be back, so I'll see," Brady said quietly into a microphone. "I mean, it's 15 minutes after the game, so I want to process it a bit. But I don't see why I wouldn't be back."
The Kraft family has made clear that will be Brady's decision, whenever he is ready to make it. But around him, there will be upheaval. Coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia are expected to leavefor head coaching jobs elsewhere, although McDaniels would not talk about that Sunday night. Gronkowski surprised everyone when he said at his interview podium that he would contemplate his future this offseason, a suggestion that retirement could be on the mind of the Patriots' most important non-Brady piece. Danny Amendola is a free agent and has already taken three pay cuts to stick around. Cornerback Malcolm Butler, a Super Bowl hero not long ago, was inexplicably benched -- Belichick said he put the best players and game plan out there -- and will certainly not be back. And, amid an admission from team owner Robert Kraft that there has been tension within his ranks this season, there is even reason to wonder about Belichick's future, although he is widely expected to be back.
"I'm just talking about this game," Belichick said when asked about his future.
That's not the best way to ease the uncertainty, which might not have been Belichick's intention anyway. Kraft said last week that he, Brady and Belichick would sit down and talk after the season ended, and the discussion will almost certainly be a frank one. Kraft thinks it will be no different than the conversations they have had after the season for the last 10 years, but that is most assuredly not going to be the case.
Brady hasn't been 40 before, and there has never been this much apparent strain in the building. The Patriots have enjoyed such a remarkable run with the consistency of their principles that it is difficult to imagine what the end might look like. Maybe it will look like this: an antiseptic locker room devoid of conversation or emotion, Belichick carrying his bags out but saying nothing to anyone, Brady retreating to a private room, and another team, unexpected and hungry for respect, celebrating its first Super Bowl title. Once, that team was the Patriots. As Belichick turned his back and walked away, it felt like a long time ago.