Tom Brady stood at the lectern after winning his eighth straight divisional-round playoff game, wearing a black ski cap on his head, smiling patiently as he listened to a question attempting to summarize the sentiments of his haters, who are apparently numerous.
Hey, Tom, the questioner began, as one does when greeting a friend, or loved one. Once again this week, there was a lot of talk about how this was the end of the dynasty, and how you're were going to fall off a cliff. I'm sure winning is sweet, but is it even sweeter when you continue to prove people wrong?
Brady, who still had traces of eye black faintly visible on his 41-year-old face, mulled the question for several seconds, trying to stifle a wry grin that would potentially reveal far more than his answer.
"I just like winning," Brady said, seeming to stare directly into the souls of his critics, who are obviously many in number and certainly not a small quilt of talking heads, entertainers and straw men he has mentally woven together to use as motivation in his quest for a sixth Super Bowl ring.
Which he has almost no shot of winning: Brady is going up against the juggernaut that is the Kansas City Chiefs, a team it's almost impossible to imagine him defeating, as long as you ignore that he did it once already this season; or that only four teams (Broncos, Ravens, Jets, Colts) have ever kept him from playing in the Super Bowl.
"I just like winning," he repeated, letting his words hang in the air like a mantra.
With 28 career playoff wins, how could anyone argue otherwise? Obviously, a quarterback who didn't like winning so much would have, eventually, lost some of those games on purpose, or even grown tired of winning, as Brady's old golf buddy, President Trump, likes to say. Perhaps that is the real difference between Brady and Philip Rivers, a man who fell to 0-8 in his career against the Patriots in this divisional-round loss. It has little to do with the fact that Brady has played his entire career for an organization with tremendous wealth and stability, in front of a rabid and loyal fan base, and for an exceptional coach with an uncanny knack for talent acquisition.
The reality is Tom Brady simply wanted it more, and we, his critics, have been afraid to write the truth, even those three times we voted him the league's Most Valuable Player, or the four times we voted him the MVP of the Super Bowl.
"Everyone thinks we suck and we can't win any games," Brady said on the field after earning a berth in his eighth consecutive AFC championship, twice as many as Jim Kelly led the Buffalo Bills to consecutively in the 1990s. "We'll see. It'll be fun."
Brady was letting us know, in that moment, that he has heard our whispers, he has absorbed our doubts, while also continuing to ignore the noise because he never hears what is said or written about him, especially not the thousands and thousands of words written each week discussing his greatness.
"I think everyone can take their words back now," said offensive lineman Marcus Cannon. "I think [Brady's] play speaks for itself."
So many people had egg on their faces after the Chargers game, Brady could've whipped up an omelet for himself if he wanted (as long as the eggs were organic and there was no added cheese, because obviously he does not consume pesticides or, for the most part, dairy).
"Obviously he's not done," said Patriots running back Rex Burkhead. "He's defying expectations."
Someday, though, we're going to write a proper obit for Brady's career. We're going to play him off the stage like this is the Oscars and he won't stop thanking people (like his fitness guru, Alex Guerrero, whom we've previously profiled, at length). We'll say goodbye respectfully, of course, probably with a really long magazine cover story, or a documentary where he asks for control over the final edit, and we grant it.
It's the least we can do after doubting him for so long, other than the times we picked him to make the playoffs and also get back to the Super Bowl.
"People are not taking advantage of being able to witness what he's doing," said Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. "Everyone wants to see someone who is an all-time great fall off. I really don't understand it. Instead of just appreciating him for what he's able to do, they want to say he's done. It makes me angry and it's not even me."
It's not that we want to see Brady stink, or that we live in a society where consuming mass media has become the equivalent of drinking from a fire hose each morning, so that only the most irrational, fiery, blasphemous takes feel memorable. We're just a little numb to it. Sustained greatness is hard to describe, which is why no one bothered to write anything nice about Patrick Mahomes after the first week of the season. We'll never come up with anything new and interesting to say about Brady, so why bother?
You'll never read anything about how Brady has started to resemble John Stockton in this final stage of his career, how he's become more of a point guard than quarterback in New England's offense, that he's not so much a game manager as he is maybe the most reliable ball distributor his sport has ever seen. There is art now woven into Brady's efficiency, just as there was with Stockton, the way he understands space, movement and timing so well, he can compensate for a subtle loss of arm strength or quickness. Other than when they announced it inside Gillette Stadium, you'll never hear people point out that he's now thrown 228 consecutive passes in the playoffs without an interception. It took a second announcement to discover that he'd thrown for 343 yards and a touchdown, because how else would you have known that, unless you logged on to the front page of ESPN.com or were among the millions who get alerts on their phone.
Stockton had Karl Malone, of course, the way that Brady once had Randy Moss and still has Rob Gronkowski. But as far as we're concerned, until he gathers up a collection of misfit-toys-turned-wideouts from the Canadian Football League, holes up with them in Montana for six weeks to coach them up, and then leads them back to the AFC championship, we'll hold off on crowning him as the Greatest of All Time a little longer.
"It's been awesome and it's been a blessing," said Julian Edelman, who never played receiver until he got to the NFL, when asked what it's been like to play with Brady. "It's been a contagious relationship, being around the best quarterback of all time, the best competitor of all time. It's been a dream."
Eventually Tom Brady will begrudgingly acknowledge that -- this time -- we are right, his sustained run of excellence is ending, and he'd might as well walk away. He is free to move beyond football and spend more time with his family, including his three kids, whose dad has made the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons.
He's ripped the guts out of basically all forms of wannabe AFC Super Bowl QBs for going on 20 years, having been bested by only four guys: Jake Plummer, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez. Rivers was just another one of his hopeful victims, but you'll never read about that on ESPN, except in this paragraph (and perhaps two dozen others).
Someday, though, we're going to wax poetically about how Brady's gradual decline is now a rapid decline. We'll point to stats (and not even advanced ones, just the basic ones!) and dig up our favorite cute-but-tired clichés like: "I guess age is still undefeated!" We'll renew talk about succession plans and the passing of torches, and we won't immediately have to eat these words when he gets back to another Super Bowl.
If he makes it this season, it's important to note, he'll have gone nine times, and have as many Super Bowl appearances as Aaron Rodgers has playoff wins, but who is counting really? Not his detractors, who, once again, are definitely, definitely real and not people yearning for attention and retweets..
It's almost absurd to imagine him beating the Chiefs, as long as you ignore the fact that Brady is 24-4 in games where the temperature is below 30 degrees, or that he's playing a franchise with just one home playoff victory in the past 25 years, or that he has started 38 playoff games and Patrick Mahomes has started one.
"We're the underdogs, so we're going to jump on that train and roll with it," said Edelman, who is selling shirts that say "Bet Against Us," which are 100 percent genuine and certainly not an effort make money off Pats fans.
The last time Brady played in Kansas City, in 2014, his team got blown out 41-14 on Monday Night Football, and Brady played one of the worst games of his career. "That was a pretty crappy loss that night," Brady said. "They gave us everything we could handle."
There was a lot of chatter that following week about how it was the beginning of the end. The Patriots still won the Super Bowl that season, which some people forget, but it wasn't easy. Brady had to throw for 328 yards and four touchdowns against one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.
It's hard to see how New England does it again. The Patriots don't have much going for them, other than Brady, who is old and washed up, and (checks notes) still arguably the best player in NFL history.
Good luck with that, I guess.