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Future murky for Patriots after wild-card loss to Titans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The game began in a damp, heavy fog, only adding to the feeling that so much around the New England Patriots now is shrouded in murkiness.

Nothing about this game -- not how it was played, by a halting Patriots offense, nor how it was lost, with a stunning pick-six of Tom Brady -- will lift that gloom in New England, where the end came abruptly for what might be much more than just this season. A dynasty, perhaps. A legend, possibly. An aura of invincibility, certainly.

Devin McCourty explained the feeling. Like a crash landing, he said.

The Foxborough faithful tried to forestall this 20-13 wild-card nightmare however they could. They chanted the name -- "Brady, Brady" -- over and over, a salute and exhortation and plea rolled into one. The final incantation came with 15 seconds left, with the Patriots backed up on their own 1-yard line, the Tennessee Titans holding a one-point lead and Brady trying to summon his fleeting greatness one more time.

Brady has been sharply vulnerable this season. His passes have been more off target than usual, his comfort with his receivers virtually non-existent, his obvious impatience a reflection of how quickly time was passing. The anticipated rounding into form never arrived and that was obvious Saturday night, too. Three times in the first half the Patriots failed to score from the 1-yard line. To imagine that he could engineer a 99-yard game-winning drive with just 15 seconds at his disposal was folly to begin with. But this was Brady, at his home and it was also impossible to imagine the alternative.

Until Logan Ryan -- a former teammate -- stepped in front of a pass intended for Mohamed Sanu, one of the receivers who was supposed to become one of Brady's go-to men, and returned the interception for a final touchdown. The Titans erupted on their sideline. And absolute silence descended on Gillette Stadium. So this is how it may end.

That it was a former Patriots assistant coach, Brian Flores, who first knocked the Patriots to their knees by sending them into the Wild Card Round, only to have a former Patriots player, Mike Vrabel, finish them off seemed fitting. In the two decades that the Patriots have stood astride the NFL universe, others have blanched at their greatness and shrunk in their shadow. It took two -- three, including Ryan -- who had known that greatness up close to not fear it and finally to topple it.

The season was one of the oddest in recent memory for the Patriots. They were dominant early, so overwhelming on defense that historical comparisons were being made. But the lack of offensive weapons was apparent from the moment Rob Gronkowski retired last March and when the schedule grew more difficult, the losses came. To Baltimore and Houston and Kansas City, division winners all. Then to Miami, surprisingly. And now this. The historical comparisons are long forgotten. The debate about whether this was one of the worst teams of the Brady and Belichick era will commence instead. Losing short of a Super Bowl was not a surprise. Losing here, at home, in the unfamiliar Wild Card Round, perhaps should not have been either.

The loss was certainly a thunderclap, but it ushers in an off-season of potentially cataclysmic change. Brady is a free agent, an inflection point he engineered himself during his last contract negotiation. He will be free to visit and sign with other teams, if he chooses. That this may have been Brady's final game in New England or anywhere else has been a stomach-churning topic here all week. You don't need to look at a picture of Joe Namath in a Rams jersey, or Joe Montana in a Chiefs shirt to know how jarring Brady on the move -- or even merely contemplating one -- would be.

One thing Brady did make clear late Saturday night: he said it is "pretty unlikely" that he would retire. But Brady's 20th season, and this game in particular, are brutal reminders that only a very few fortunate players get to script a perfect ending. His friend and rival Peyton Manning retired after he won his second Super Bowl, but he had to be carried across that finish line by the Denver Broncos defense. Michael Strahan retired right after he played a large role in battering Brady during a Super Bowl the New York Giants won. So much about Brady's career has, in fact, seemed perfect. But Brady, alas, may not be so lucky as it winds down. He may have more seasons like this one, here or elsewhere, where his accuracy wavers. He might be able to find his greatness in spurts again. He may at least not have it all end on a pick-six.

"Wish it had been a 99-yard touchdown," he said. "That would have been cool."

Brady wore a wan smile when he spoke to reporters and although he said repeatedly he did not want to talk about the future, the unsettled nature of what is to come is obvious.

"I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I'm not going to predict it. No one needs to make choices at this point. I love playing football. I love playing for this team. I don't know what it looks like moving forward. We'll take it day by day."

Brady was asked if he wants to return to the Patriots, and he talked about his love for the Patriots. Nobody has had a better career than he has playing for owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick, he said. But he notably did not say he wanted to be back.

Belichick was no more illuminating. When he was asked about Brady, he dismissed the question quickly.

"We just finished the game, we're focused on this game, okay?" he said, before muttering quietly, "I mean, really."

It is too early to forecast what Brady would even be returning to. His offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, is again a leading candidate for head coaching jobs. Nick Caserio, the Patriots' director of player personnel, could also leave. Devin McCourty, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Matthew Slater -- they are all free agents, too.

So the Patriots will almost certainly look very different than they do now, and perhaps almost unrecognizable from the teams that have won six Super Bowls since 2001, including three of the last five.

And it is the Titans who will go to Baltimore next week to face the AFC's top seed, a spot the Patriots had held so many times in the past. Brady stopped to chat with Vrabel on his way out, the old friends intertwined for history in a new way they could not have anticipated.

"I think we're all running out of time and chances every year that goes by," Brady said. "I don't think I'm the only one in that category in this room."

By the time the game was over, the fog had lifted. The sky was mostly clear, even if the Patriots' future is not.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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