FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Excuse me ... excuse me, Tom Brady whispered under his breath.
The New England Patriots quarterback had just emerged from the trainer's room wearing a casual white sweater and -- surprise, surprise -- a large wrap around his throwing elbow. As he gingerly maneuvered his way around an unwieldy tangle of reporters and cameras in the losers' locker room, Brady appeared less concerned that he might bump into a journalist than he was that a journalist might bump into his arm.
"Probably be on the injury report," the quarterback would say, "but I'll be there next Sunday."
On to Cincinnati, of course, just like in 2014, when the Kansas City Chiefs shredded the Patriots and sent Brady to Bill Belichick's bench before the rookie, Jimmy Garoppolo, played convincingly enough in relief for people to start asking if the 37-year-old starter was nearing the end. Belichick famously On-to-Cincinnati'd everyone who dared to think the unthinkable out loud, and five years and three more Super Bowl rings later, the Patriots are back on the brink, caught between a rock (the Chiefs) and a not-so-hard place (a date with the Bengals).
The bad news? While he failed to crack 170 yards passing in Sunday's 23-16 loss at Gillette Stadium, Brady was New England's second-leading rusher with 20 yards on two carries, including a dynamic fourth-down dash in the closing minutes that compelled the quarterback to scream and gesture at the crowd and even inspired Belichick to dramatically hurl his right arm forward to signal a first down.
The good news? The Patriots might have extended their home winning streak to 22 games had Jerome Boger's officiating crew not performed worse than New England's offensive line. Of greater significance, the Chiefs gave Belichick a live look at everything they have to offer, just like last season, when New England beat them at home in the regular season and on the road in the AFC Championship Game.
In fact, Belichick has now gotten an up-close look at the three postseason-bound partnerships that beat his team this season and will fight for long-term AFC supremacy whenever Billy and Tommy finally take their ball and go home. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson. Bill O'Brien and Deshaun Watson. Belichick has a long history of making adjustments that turn regular-season defeats into postseason triumphs. You can start by asking the 1990 49ers and Bills (when Belichick was Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator) and the 2001 Rams (when Belichick was done being anyone's coordinator).
And no, that doesn't mean the Patriots will recover from this two-game losing streak like they recovered from last season's nightmarish two-game losing streak -- defined by the Miami Miracle and what seemed like a Patriots penalty on every other snap against Pittsburgh -- to win their sixth Super Bowl title. They don't have Rob Gronkowski this time around. On offense, they don't have much of anyone this time around not named Julian Edelman.
So Brady and Edelman, as a healthy tandem, lost a regular-season home game to an AFC opponent for the first time ever. They were 42-0 under those circumstances over the 10 seasons they suited up together since Edelman's arrival in 2009 (the receiver missed 2017), before Reid and Mahomes and the refs did them in.
"Obviously we've got to do some things better than we did them tonight," said Belichick, who praised his players' effort, if not their execution. "It just wasn't quite good enough under the circumstances in the game."
By "circumstances," he meant the officiating that turned one touchdown into a field goal and might have prevented another. Hey, that's showbiz. All that matters is New England blew a chance to apply top-seed pressure on Baltimore, and allowed the Chiefs to clinch another AFC West title despite the fact that a container carrying equipment for about 35 players ended up on a plane to New Jersey, where football dreams often go to die.
In order to rouse his slumbering offense, Belichick broke out two trick plays, including a flea-flicker on the first drive that ended with Brady's 37-yard scoring pass to Edelman, and went for it on a failed fourth-and-7. The Patriots blocked a punt, and their coach was so desperate to block another in the fourth quarter that he sacrificed the need for a return man deep. Belichick knows he has to manufacture points when playing against the big boys, because neither Gronk nor Antonio Brown is walking through that door, and because a 42-year-old Brady isn't playing like he did when he was 40 and 41.
Brady's 36.7 Total QBR on Sunday marked his fourth consecutive game south of 40, his longest such streak since QBR was first measured in 2006. Brady hadn't failed to score 20 points in consecutive home starts since 2006, and his average of 6.6 yards per attempt this season is his lowest since 2002. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Brady went 2-for-9 for 21 yards and a sack under pressure in the first half, when Kansas City took control of the game. It appeared the Chiefs' defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, had borrowed a page or three from his playbook as the Giants' defensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLII.
Truth is, Brady is playing around the level he played at in 2013, which was one of the primary reasons Belichick drafted Garoppolo the following spring. In 2017, Brady told ESPN.com that if he gets to age 45 and still feels good, "I don't see why I wouldn't want to continue. ... My love for the sport will never go away. I don't think at 45 it will go away." Brady's father, Tom Sr., told ESPN.com three months ago that he felt his son was in such a great physical and mental place, "There's no question he can go five, six more years if he wants to."
Those projections seem a tad optimistic today. On the other hand, Brady is still likely to win the AFC East for the 17th time and for the 11th time in a row. In fact, putting aside his missed season in 2008, Brady has never lost the division outright as a healthy starter; he lost a tiebreaker to Chad Pennington's Jets in 2002. There should be a rule that some AFC East quarterback has to take the division from Brady -- and the guaranteed home playoff date that comes with it -- before anyone seriously weighs replacing him.
Until then, Brady will be left to make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. He was reminded Sunday that he's done that better than any quarterback in history before being asked if he was confident he could figure out his team's offensive issues before it's too late.
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"I don't want to make any predictions," Brady answered. "I think we come in with a plan to get better every week and try to win each game. ... I may have certain experience doing things, but this particular team as a whole hasn't been through different situations. So you just try to work through them over the course of the whole season, and we have three big games to go. And we've got to get back to winning football."
The 10-win Patriots will be favored to finish 13-3, and it is a testament to the standard they've set over two decades that their current standing qualifies as a crisis. They were booed at halftime -- which had to hurt -- before the late rally and the Brady run and the Bon Jovi music got everyone ready to win a football game New England would ultimately lose.
"You guys are good," Brady told Kansas City's defensive line coach, Brendan Daly, the former Patriots assistant, as the two greeted each other outside the home team's locker room.
No NFL team has ever been as good as the Brady and Belichick Patriots when it matters most. So as the losing quarterback pushed through a door and hobbled toward the Gillette Stadium exit, wearing that large elbow wrap while carrying two black bags and a blue jacket, he wasn't necessarily heading for a painful ending to the 2019 season.
He was only on to Cincinnati, and to a credible chance to still turn six rings into seven.