The Patriots only have one option

W. James Antle III

If the press isn't already burying New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, imagine what will happen if Jimmy Garoppolo leads the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Garoppolo was once Brady's backup and understudy. He filled in admirably during Brady's 2016 Deflategate suspension. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick only reluctantly traded him away amid (officially denied) reports that team owner Robert Kraft intervened to protect the franchise star.

A 49ers win this weekend would cement the narrative that Belichick should have ignored Kraft and traded Brady instead. Even if Garoppolo falls short to the Green Bay Packers (led by Aaron Rodgers, who knows something about dethroning aging veteran quarterbacks who happen to be franchise legends), he is playing in the NFC Championship Game. Brady isn't playing in the AFC title bout for the first time since the 2010 season and didn't even suit up in the divisional round for the first time in a decade.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs will be playing in the AFC Championship, however. That's the team Brady and the Patriots beat in overtime last year to return to the Super Bowl. Tossing 50 touchdown passes in his first season as a full-time starter, a feat once achieved only by the New England signal-caller, Mahomes had already ended Brady's stint as the last elite quarterback standing in the AFC, following the injury to Ben Roethlisberger and the retirements of Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. The other team in this game is the Tennessee Titans, the squad that happened to eliminate the Patriots from the playoffs.

Pundits say the Patriots should join the youth revolution that gave rise to Garoppolo and Mahomes, even if they declined the opportunity to do so in 2017 (when Brady won league MVP, incidentally). "Decline comes for us all. Rome fell. The British empire receded," writes The Atlantic's Scott Stossel in a piece titled "The End of Brady," though at least he is sad about it. "The Romanovs, the Habsburgs — gone. And on a fog-enshrouded night last weekend in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the most impressive and enduring sports dynasty of the 21st century sputtered to its inevitable end, as the Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans, 20–13, in a first-round playoff game."

"I know parting ways with the six-time Super Bowl champ and three-time MVP, whose resume is synonymous with winning at the highest level, would be viewed as blasphemous in Foxborough," contends NFL.com's Bucky Brooks. "But if the Patriots want to continue competing for titles in the near future, it's time for them to close the book on the Brady era."

What makes this commentary different from past predictions that Brady was about to go the way of the old European empires? Two things: First, at 42, the end is indisputably near; second, come March, Brady will likely be a free agent for the first time in his 20-year NFL career. And it comes in the broader context of a belief that pocket passers like Brady are the past while running quarterbacks like the Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson represent the future of the game.

Bollocks. Jackson is watching at home on his couch this week just as much as Brady. More importantly, with the right supporting cast the old man could still win a Super Bowl. He looked like an elite quarterback for the first three games of the season, when his wide receivers were at their healthiest and best. All this is especially true if Brady's partnership with Belichick continues.

There is no guarantee that it will. This year Belichick chose to starve Brady's offensive supporting cast in order to feed the defense. His allies whispered to ESPN's Seth Wickersham in 2018 that they thought Brady was in decline back then. Both men will be sorely tempted to prove they can win without each other. The odds of a divorce look higher than when I wrote about the possibility at the beginning of the season.

Cooler heads should prevail. The fact that a quarterback as talented as Rodgers has to duel a former Brady backup to get a shot at a second Super Bowl ring shows that it is not easy to win these titles. The Patriots' sustained success stems not from air pressure in footballs or the perennially weak AFC East but from having one of the best coaches of all time and one of the best quarterbacks of all time at the same time. With Garoppolo safely ensconced in the city where Brady's boyhood hero Joe Montana once starred, it's not entirely clear that Belichick has better options than helping his partner in victory hang on for a season or two more.

In the meantime, there's an excellent chance Garoppolo, Mahomes or both will appear in the Super Bowl. Still, don't count out the man who isn't there. The youth revolution will not be denied, but it can be delayed — if a certain tandem in Massachusetts sticks together.

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