INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Brady was one of the last ones out of the shower, perhaps hoping some extra hot water would help take the sting out of a crushing Super Bowl loss. In a nearly deserted New England Patriots locker room, he sat wearily pulling on his boots, the pained look on his face never changing.
A few moments earlier, Joe Montana had walked down the hallway just outside, but there would be no meeting of Super Bowl greats. Nor would Brady join Montana in another way, as a four-time NFL champion – something he seemed destined to be at one point in the fourth quarter.
This was not a night when legacies would be debated. That will have to wait for another time, another place, another Super Bowl. For the second time in the last five Super Bowls, Brady had come up oh-so-short, beaten late once again by the New York Giants and another quarterback starting to make a pretty good name for himself, too.
Brady wasn't going to come out and say it, but he was blaming himself. Had to, because he had the ball in his hand to win the game with 57 seconds left and couldn't deliver the long touchdown drive that Patriots fans and even his teammates thought would be forthcoming.
"It's Tom Brady," said Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington. "A lot of people were thinking whoever had the ball last was going to win."
Not on this night.
The two-point safety on the Brady's first play of the night turned out to be costly. Without it, the Patriots would have needed just a field goal to win, not a touchdown.
Then there was the catch Wes Welker always makes that he failed to make. It came on a Brady pass with 4 minutes left when it appeared the Patriots were ready to drive for a score that might have put the game away.
It's a team game, Brady kept repeating afterward. It was the team, he kept saying, that came up short.
"We all wish we could have done a bit more," he said. "That's what it comes to in football. It always comes down to one or two plays. If you make them you're celebrating. If you don't, you don't sleep for a week."
Brady looked like he surely would be having some sleepless nights. The celebrity quarterback with the celebrity wife sat at a podium afterward, a few days growth of beard on his face and his hair nowhere near perfect. He tried to be philosophical, tried to say all the right things, but there was a certain hollowness to the words and he looked like he would like to be somewhere, anywhere, else.
"We fought to the end and I'm proud of that," he said. "Then we got to the 50 or so and we just ran out of time."
Not before trying one final desperation pass that was batted down in the end zone, just barely out of the reach of Rob Gronkowski. So close – again.
No one even brought up the 16 straight passes Brady completed, breaking the record of 13 straight set by Montana in the 1990 Super Bowl. It was a nice run in the second and third quarters, but nice runs don't always win games and on this night it was a record Brady would probably just as soon forget.
The one he wanted was four Super Bowl wins by a quarterback, something that would have put him in the elite company of Montana and Terry Bradshaw. Not just for himself, but for a team he has now led to a remarkable five Super Bowl appearances in 11 years.
The safety call for intentional grounding on a pass from the end zone on the first play of the game got the Patriots off on the wrong foot, though Brady wasn't going to second-guess the official on a ball thrown long over the middle. The Welker play late stung the most, though Brady wasn't going to second-guess a receiver who usually makes it look so easy the pair often seem to just be playing catch on the field.
Still, it's got to be the one running through his head as he tosses in bed through the sleepless nights ahead.
Had Welker caught the ball, thrown just a bit high and behind him, the Patriots would have been around the Giants 20 with a two-point lead and the game in hand. Had he caught it in stride, the game likely would have been over right there.
"It came down to one play at the end of the game," Brady said. "If we make it we're world champions."
A few minutes earlier, Welker had been in the same room, staring straight ahead with reddened eyes. If Brady wasn't blaming him he was blaming himself, saying that it "comes to the biggest moment of my life and (I) don't come up with it."
But his quarterback still had his back.
"Wes was running down the field and it looked like they messed the coverage up a little bit and I threw it to him," Brady said. "(He) went up to try and make it, as he always does, and we just couldn't connect. He's a hell of a player. I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can."
Four years ago in Phoenix, Brady lost his first Super Bowl in four tries in a game that was agonizingly similar to this one. Now he's lost his last two and, instead of wondering how many he'll win in his career, people will be wondering if he can win another one – and finally reach that Montana-Bradshaw plateau.
"I'd rather come to this game and lose than not get here," Brady said. "I won't stop trying to get here."
And a few minutes later he walked out of the stadium with his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, the dour look still on his face.
Not to worry, though. Even after a loss as heartbreaking as this, the odds still are pretty good that Brady and the Patriots will be back.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg