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The Patriots want Brady, but does he still want them?

Tom Brady

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

So this is what it’s come down to for the Patriots and Tom Brady: On Saturday night, just before the Titans eliminated them from the playoffs, team owner Robert Kraft told NBC’s Peter King he’d absolutely genuflect in hopes his quarterback returns next season.

“My hope and prayer is No. 1, he [Brady] play for the Patriots. Or No. 2, he retires,” Kraft said. “He has the freedom to decide what he wants to do and what’s in his own best personal interest.”

Yes he does. For the first time in his career, Brady is set to become a free agent in March. And while he dispelled any rumors he’d retire after the Titans game, he said nothing about what his plans were for the 2020 season.

That Brady might decide to sign with another team is a real possibility and you get the sense the Patriots are bracing for it. It’s happened before, you know. Johnny Unitas played for the Chargers, Joe Namath for the Rams. Brett Favre played with the Jets and Joe Montana was a Chief.

In his conversation with King, Kraft admitted he doesn’t want to see Brady in another uniform.

“I’m thinking of all that, of all the quarterbacks who went elsewhere, and I just hope and believe that Tom … he is so special that he’s earned the right to do what’s best for him. … But I just hope and pray we fit into his plans,” Kraft said.

After the stunning 20-13 loss to the Titans at Gillette Stadium, Brady categorized the chances he’d retire as pretty unlikely and hopefully unlikely. We’d add definitely unlikely.

Brady will be 43 next season, but he’s said many times he wants to play until he is 45. And although he wasn’t as productive as he usually is this season, he emerged from it relatively healthy and still fully engaged emotionally.

In a lot of cases, the Patriots could have circumvented Brady’s departure by assigning him a franchise tag. But the team is not allowed to do that. So if they want to retain Brady, three things must happen: The Patriots need to want him and he needs to want them. And they must agree on length of contact and money. We suspect that would start at two years, $60 million.

“I love the Patriots. It’s the greatest organization. Playing for Mr. [Robert] Kraft all these years, and for Coach [Bill] Belichick, there’s nobody who’s had a better career, I would say, than me – just being with them. So I’m very blessed.I don’t know what the future looks like, so I’m not going to predict it.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. 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’ve loved playing for this team for two decades and winning a lot of games. I don’t know what it looks like moving forward, so we’ll just take it day to day.”

You could tell Patriots fans believed this would be Brady’s final home game. They chanted his name throughout and there were signs begging him to stay. After the game was over, he slapped hands with a number of them on his way down the stairs leading to the Patriots locker room.

“(Playing with Brady) has been the experience of a lifetime,” said Matthew Slater, who has been with the Patriots for 12 seasons. “He does things the right way, has all the success in the world, but still remains himself. I think that says a lot about who he is as a man.”

If it was Brady’s last game for the Patriots, you’d have to categorize it as so-so. He was 20-for-37 for 209 yards, no touchdowns. And he threw that pick six to Logan Ryan in the final few seconds.

“He’s a role model to me, a lot of his work ethic I studied, how early he got to the building, things I do and try to bring to Tennessee, try to be a leader each and every day and a competitor every day in practice and the game,” Ryan told The Athletic. “So I mean, that’s the GOAT in my eyes. Played with him. Played against him a couple times. Nothing’s better. If you like to compete, competing against him and being his teammate are the two best things in the world. Happy I got one off him.”

Robert Kraft

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

During NBC’s telecast of the Eagles-Seahawks game, Al Michaels asked Chris Collingsworth to predict what would become of Brady. After some hesitation, Collingsworth said he believed Brady would play – with the Chargers, if the organization decided to move ahead from Philip Rivers.

As Brady said, who really knows? But when he looks forward, he probably sees a Patriots team finally at its crossroad. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the ying to Brady’s yang, is scheduled to interview with the Browns and Giants this week about their head coaching job.

And in terms of personnel, it seems the Patriots have fallen somewhat behind in giving Brady the type of weapons he needs to be successful. They suffered at receiver. Just look at the backup quarterback position. From Jimmy Garoppolo they’ve moved to Jarrett Stidham. That’s playing on the edge.

Maybe there is a team out there, with the need and salary cap space, whose roster looks more attractive to the GOAT.

The Patriots lost four of their last six games – including Week 17’s home debacle to the Dolphins – to drop them into the Wild Card round for the first time in a decade.

Something seems to be missing now from the organization Brady won six Super Bowls and three NFL MVP awards with.

Nothing lasts forever. Eventually, even Belichick won’t coach the Patriots anymore. For Brady, this seems like the best time ever to turn the page. There is no acrimony, no apparent pressure to make a change at quarterback.

The Patriots must come to a decision: Do they think Brady’s age is reason enough not to make a huge financial commitment to him? It seems reasonable for 2020. But beyond that? It’s a fair question.

Maybe he just doffs his cap and says thank you for the best time in his life. All the Patriots can do now is stay patient and pray.