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It happened all at once, the way it happens to boxers. He had been baited into throwing a pass to the wrong man, and suddenly he stood exposed, with not only the play but nature itself turning against him. His teammates seemed to have disappeared; he was the last man in position to stop the wrong man from running all the way down the field and turning the game into a rout. He tried his best, as he always does, but he was alone against a younger, faster opponent, and when he dove, he missed by a foot rather than by an inch and appeared simply to fall down, in pieces. Even those who root against him might then have pitied him, because it was one of those moments when the essence of sport is revealed to be cruelly and coldly biological: Tom Brady, in the course of throwing a pick-six to Robert Alford of the Falcons in the second quarter of Super Bowl LI, had grown old.
Later, in the fourth quarter, Brady threw another pass over the middle to Alford. It was worse than the pick-six. Brady wasn't tricked; he was forcing the ball into traffic with the game on the line. This time, though, Alford didn't catch it. This time the ball caromed off his fingertips, still in play. It went up, came down, and Brady's intended receiver, Julian Edelman, leaped for it. He grabbed at it, but then so did gravity, and the ball fell toward the ground. But it didn't land on the ground. It landed on a trivet of Alford's splayed legs and Ricardo Allen's outstretched arms, and Edelman got his hands under it, in one of those moments when the essence of sport is revealed to be cosmic. By the measure of a vibrating inch, Tom Brady had overturned the verdict of time.