TAMPA, Fla. -- The end is near, if not imminent. It's been three years, one Super Bowl and too many happy tailgates to count since Tom Brady arrived in Tampa Bay.
And now the Bucs are facing a do-or-die game against a better team, and Brady is in the final year of his contract. You do the math.
Maybe the Bucs beat the Cowboys and this conversation can be put off for another week. Or, just as likely, the Bucs come up short and this is the final time you'll see Brady wearing a Tampa Bay uniform.
It's been a little less than a year since Brady briefly retired, although no one seems to be expecting that again. Topps might as well start figuring out how to squeeze a 24th season on the back of a football card.
The question is where will Brady be when the 2023 season begins. He could always re-up with the Bucs, but that seems farfetched.
If he left New England after 20 years, if he left beloved owner Robert Kraft, if he left a team coming off a 12-4 season in 2019, do you think he would hesitate to leave Tampa Bay and the Glazers after three years and a horribly frustrating 8-9 season?
Brady wants to win. He wants to thrive at age 46. He wants to be in another Super Bowl and continue proving to the world that no one has ever mastered the game quite the way TB12 did.
And it's difficult to see the Bucs being the best bet for that in 2023. Not with a thin, aging roster.
The trick is not being upset at that thought. Not looking at tonight's playoff game as a potential bummer. Brady's three years in Tampa Bay were a gift from the football gods and should not be dishonored by selfish longing.
Think about where the Bucs were when Brady arrived in 2020. They had gone 12 years without a playoff appearance and 17 years without a postseason victory.
And think about how Brady's legend was slipping. At the time, the Washington Post said he was "an average passer at best in 2019, with little hope of returning to elite status." A Boston Globe columnist wrote after a Patriots playoff loss in 2019: "I am stunned by the number of otherwise smart sports people who believe Brady -- obviously in decline -- will still be a star quarterback three years from now."
One year later, Brady led the Bucs to the Super Bowl. Two years later, he led the NFL in passing yards. Three years later, he is the only starting quarterback in franchise history to have back-to-back-to-back playoff appearances.
Yes, the marriage might have been short but Tom Brady was the love of our sporting lives.
We have seen great players in Tampa Bay. Hall of Fame players. Phenoms that did not last. Gray-haired superstars taking their final laps. But until Brady, we had never seen an all-time legend still capable of commanding the world's attention every time he walked on a field, or the ice, or on a diamond.
The fact that we were just borrowing him should not matter. The fact that he may choose to leave should not be taken personally. And the fact that even Brady struggled to overcome an offense with a weakened line, a Gronk-less huddle and suspect play-calling in 2022 should not be held against him.
The truth is, in a whirlwind way, we were good for each other.
Brady breathed life into a moribund franchise. He gave then-coach Bruce Arians an exclamation point at the end of an underrated career. He helped players such as Mike Evans and Lavonte David prove their prowess after years at the bottom of the standings.
And, in turn, Tampa Bay gave Brady the contract, the platform and the roster to prove to New England that he was not Bill Belichick's creation. That, in fact, it may have been the other way around.
Maybe this is all premature.
Maybe the Bucs still have the talent to go on a long playoff run this month. (Although I doubt it.) Maybe General Manager Jason Licht can convince Brady that, with a few roster tweaks and a new game plan, the Bucs give him the best chance to succeed in 2023. (I doubt that, too.)
Regardless of how this plays out in the coming weeks, it's important to view tonight's game in the proper perspective.
It's another chance -- maybe the last chance -- to watch history's most successful quarterback playing in a big game in your home stadium on national television while wearing a Buccaneers uniform.
Three years ago, who would have ever believed it?