Tom Brady changed coaches. He changed conferences. He changed cities. He changed climates. In his tornado of an off-season, he also celebrated a birthday. In August, he turned 43.
At that age, N.F.L. players are playing golf or reconnecting with their families or pursuing business ventures.
What they are not doing is playing in the N.F.L. They are not choosing to sign with downtrodden franchises or shredding defenses or winning three consecutive playoff games on the road.
They are not quarterbacking teams to the Super Bowl.
Except when they do.
Except when Tom Brady does it.
After his Tampa Bay Buccaneers escaped Lambeau Field with a 31-26 victory on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, just one game remains in this bizarre, disjointed curiosity of a season, and Brady will be playing in it. Of course he will. Not only that, but it will be played on Feb. 7 in his home stadium (against either Kansas City or Buffalo).
He signed with Tampa Bay in March, bolting the most successful N.F.L. organization of the modern era for one of the least, for the challenge as much as a change. The challenge was this: that, untethered from New England and Bill Belichick, he could learn new teammates, master a new offense, acclimate to a new region and produce at an elite level, a level he demanded of himself.
In defying the aging process, Brady advanced to his 10th Super Bowl. He emboldened a franchise that, until he arrived, had won as many playoff games over its 44 seasons (six) as he had Super Bowl rings, all while delivering perhaps the most staggering statistical season of his career: Only Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson threw for more yards than Brady, and only the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers threw for more touchdowns.
“For me, I don’t think about what it means,” Brady said after Sunday’s game. “I do think about what it means for everyone else.”
Even so, on some level, Brady must understand the magnitude of his accomplishments.
How until these playoffs, he had never taken the long path to the Super Bowl, qualifying as a wild card and beginning his playoff quest on the road, where he had played in all of three games across the nine other postseasons that culminated in a Super Bowl berth.
How with off-season workouts and preseason games canceled because of the pandemic, he still managed to transform a team that hadn’t won a playoff game since its Super Bowl-winning season of 2002 — that had finished last in the N.F.C. South in seven of the past nine seasons — and lead it to three consecutive playoff victories, all against division champions.
How he himself overcame a disappointing 2019 season in New England, undermined by a diminishing stockpile of talent around him, to average 333.3 passing yards per game over the final quarter of this season, with 12 touchdowns and one interception.
How he went from throwing an interception on the final play of his last season with the Patriots to helping the Buccaneers become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
“It’s hard to envision this as a goal, but at the same time, it’s a week-to-week league,” said Brady, who will become the fourth quarterback to start a Super Bowl for more than one franchise, joining Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner and Craig Morton. “We’re at 7-5 seven games ago, not feeling great. We felt like we needed to find our rhythm. Played four great games down the stretch the last quarter of the season. After that, it was just all bonus. And we just had to go play well.”
As a team, the Buccaneers did play well on Sunday, and their comprehensive effort validated Brady’s decision to sign with them. He saw a team with elite receivers, an ascending young defense and a bevy of offensive coaches primed to maximize his final seasons. Instead of throwing to N’Keal Harry and Phillip Dorsett, Brady zipped balls this season to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and to Antonio Brown, whom Tampa Bay added in October.
The game on Sunday unfolded early as if following a rough draft of the teams’ Week 6 matchup, when Tampa Bay sacked Rodgers five times, coaxed two turnovers and coasted to a 38-10 victory. But then Brady, after connecting on the last of his three touchdowns, threw interceptions on three consecutive drives, all in the second half, as Green Bay tried to overcome an 18-point deficit.
Backed by a defense that again sacked Rodgers five times and that twice held Green Bay’s league-best red zone offense without a touchdown when it had first-and-goal, Tampa Bay allowed just 6 points off Brady’s turnovers.
When Brady signed with Tampa Bay, Rodgers figured they would meet in the playoffs, as if preordained. Brady fled the A.F.C. at a pivot point in the league’s quarterbacking evolution, just as Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson seemed primed to lord over the conference. He went to an N.F.C. ruled by two aging stars, Drew Brees and Rodgers, and Brady, older than both, beat them both in the playoffs. In one season in the conference, Brady already has as many N.F.C. titles as Rodgers and Brees.
With the exception of his first appearance, every other time Brady reached the Super Bowl with New England — that is to say, the next eight times — he did so as a member of a dynasty: In 18 seasons as the Patriots’ starter, he played in 13 conference championship games. The Buccaneers do not have that sheen, or at least they didn’t.
“He’s probably the biggest reason we are where we are,” receiver Scotty Miller said.
Now the Buccaneers are in the Super Bowl, an exotic place for them but an altogether familiar one for the man who would probably be retired right now if he weren’t Tom Brady.