TAMPA, Fla. -- First they bloodied Tom Brady and then they sent him off into the twilight -- of the lost evening and perhaps of much more. The Los Angeles Rams are returning home for the NFC Championship Game after a 30-27 victory, where they will face the San Francisco 49ers and have a chance to get the answer to the question that has defined their season:
Have they done enough, acquired enough stars, mortgaged enough of their future, to reap the ultimate payoff?
A gut check, 42-second drive for the game-winning field goal, with the Rams teetering on the edge of an epic collapse, seemed to suggest that maybe they had successfully replicated the formula the Bucs used last year -- gobbling up as many stars as they could stuff under their salary cap and into their locker room and putting their feet on the gas.
"We got home!" the Rams screamed as they came off the field.
Brady and those Bucs are going home, too, their hopes of running it back dashed, the questions that trail them more painful and requiring more time to consider. They had been the rare team to return every starter from the previous season. But where last year was a refreshing joyride, this one was bumpy, with injuries and controversy stripping the roster of talent and the giddiness that accompanied last season. Even before the inglorious end, some fans streamed for the exit before the frantic comeback began, trying to beat traffic instead of being sure they saw what could have been the final moments of the greatest career in NFL history. Perhaps they were taking for granted that they will see Brady again in a few months.
Perhaps they should not do that.
"Always tough to lose at the end of the year," Brady said after Sunday's loss. "One team, one year, it's never the same after that. It doesn't feel good to lose any one of those games. I've lost at every one of those stages. It all sucks to lose in the end."
Was that it, with Brady able to engineer another spellbinding comeback but not a victory, a half measure that leaves him not with a black and white coda, but just a lot of gray. A few minutes after the game ended, he was noncommittal about his future.
"Haven't given a lot of thought to it," he said. "Take it day by day and see where we're at. Truthfully, guys, I'm thinking about this game and not thinking about anything past five minutes from now."
Brady had accomplished at least one more career first on Sunday, when he was called for his maiden unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for screaming at an official, but that comeback was a throwback. The Rams led by 24 points in the third quarter, thanks to a lifeless, tired-looking start by the Bucs. That was before the Bucs began inching, and then roaring, back. The Rams fumbled four times -- all four were recovered by the Bucs -- and missed short on a 47-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter, fueling a Bucs offense that, for most of the day, had been unable to protect Brady and had sputtered as a result. When Leonard Fournette scampered 9 yards on fourth down for the tying touchdown -- the fans who hadn't made it to the parking lot now jammed into standing areas -- it felt familiar. This is what Brady has done over two decades. This was a more appropriate way for what could be his final game to play out.
The end is rarely well-scripted, though, even for the greatest players, and the fact that Brady was on the sideline, watching another quarterback make a spectacular heave to put his team into winning position, did not fit into any imagining of how Brady might depart. But the winner of seven Super Bowls and the possessor of a staggering consistency that drove his teams to 14 conference championship games was left to watch.
Until recently, it had been assumed that Brady would be back next season. But on Sunday night, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians was careful to say it was up to Brady.
Brady himself had once said he would retire when he sucked. This season, he put together an MVP-caliber season and receiver Mike Evans called him one of the best players and leaders ever.
"We need him back," Evans said. He isn't wrong.
When the Bucs signed Brady, and then started accumulating more players to complement him, they drew the blueprint the Rams are now following. Forget the slow, steady build. Get the quarterback you believe in by any means necessary, accumulate as much talent around him as quickly as you can and go for it. The Bucs rode it to a Lombardi Trophy last season. The Rams may do it this year.
That Bucs' championship still stands as the last thing that Brady had to prove -- that he could play well into his 40s, that he wasn't finished when the New England Patriots thought he was, that he could win elsewhere. He still feels great physically, he said, and perhaps he will play next season, when he will be 45 years old. Brady, not surprisingly, betrayed nothing of his feelings as the night ended. He spent a few long moments chatting with the recently unretired Eric Weddle and Odell Beckham. He walked briskly off the field, trailed by cameras. There were no tears, and no halting looks around, as we have seen other quarterbacks do when they knew their time was done. Even the Twitter feed of his TB12 brand spit out a corporate sounding exhortation about learning lessons and getting up. #KeepGoing read the on-brand, albeit cryptic, hashtag.
One of the men who tormented Brady on Sunday, one of the collection of Rams talent -- Von Miller -- was asked about the possibility that this was Brady's final game.
"Nah, that ain't gonna be the end of Tom Brady," he said, adding he has plenty of reason to hate Brady for winning so much, but he doesn't.
Maybe Miller, like others, is trying to speak into existence a return. Maybe Brady will reach that same conclusion on his own. Only one thing is certain. Brady, for one of the very few times in his career, has failed to meet the standard.
He does not suck.