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Tom Brady, now 41, exists in his own great wide open

Tom Brady is still here.

The most successful quarterback who ever lived turned 41 on Friday. For a man now firmly entrenched in middle-age, it'd make sense if he was spending this special day on a golf course ... or at his kid's soccer practice ... or in a CBS planning meeting ... or on a yacht with his wife. If you woke up from a five-year coma, it wouldn't be stunning if you learned Brady was being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton this weekend. You'd also be thirsty.

Brady's not doing any of those things, of course. He's in suburban Massachusetts, playing football under a blazing hot sun. He's practicing with guys half his age who call him "sir," preparing for his 19th season with the New England Patriots. At an age when all of his peers have moved on to the next stage of their lives, Tom Brady is still here. And he might be better than ever.

Few examples better illuminate the stubborn greatness of Brady than the month-long stretch that began when ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham dropped his bombshell expose on dysfunction behind the scenes of Patriot Way. Wickersham painted the picture of a growing divide inside the sport's great dynasty, a schism centered on distrust and frustration between the iconic star quarterback, Brady, and genius franchise architect, Bill Belichick. Also tucked into the piece: An eyebrow-raising internal scouting report on Brady's thought-to-be unassailable play:

The criticism has continued this year, as Brady has been hit a lot and battled various injuries. Atypically, he has missed a lot of practices and, in the team's private evaluations, is showing the slippage of a 40-year-old quarterback even as he is contending for MVP and is as deadly as ever with the game on the line. Injuries to his shoulder and Achilles have done more than undermine claims that the TB12 Method can help you play football virtually pain-free. Subtle changes have at times hampered the offense and affected the depth chart. On a fourth-quarter play against the Los Angeles Chargers, for instance, Brady had a clean pocket and a first read open deep, possibly for a touchdown. But Brady got rid of the ball quickly over the middle to receiver Chris Hogan, who had nowhere to run and was hit hard, injuring his shoulder. He missed all but one game of the rest of the season. "Tom was trying to get it out quick," a Patriots staffer says. "As fragility has increased, nervousness has also increased."

It was the kind of passage that stops you in your tracks and sends you back to the top for a second read. Football is unique in how behind-the-scenes personnel and fans, even avid ones, can look at the same player -- even the same play -- and see totally different things. The game's internal mechanics are a mystery to almost all who follow from afar. Was it possible that Tom Brady was already in the midst of a subtle decline? Were the experts seeing what the layman could not?

One can only imagine how many times Brady read that paragraph. As the Wickersham report blew up into the NFL's biggest story, Brady and the Patriots went underground in preparation for their 16th playoff appearance in the past 18 years. When Brady stepped on the field after the Pats' now-obligatory first-round bye, he got a chance to clap back at the doubters inside his own building.

Brady carved up the Titans with ease in the Divisional Round, then toppled the Jaguars and their vaunted defense with a 14-point, fourth-quarter flurry that serves as one of his defining non-Super Bowl moments. Seconds after Brady connected with Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone to put New England ahead with 2:48 to play, Scott Zolack, the Patriots' oft-delirious radio color man, summed up the feelings of an entire region: "I LOVE TOM BRADY!"

Brady was even better two weeks later, albeit in a losing effort. A day after winning his third league MVP award, Brady threw for a record 505 yards, averaged an ungodly 11.8 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 115.4 in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles. If Brandon Graham doesn't get Brady with a strip sack late in the fourth quarter, No. 12 probably has six Super Bowl rings in his safe right now.

In three playoff games, Brady completed 64 percent of his passes (89 of 139) for 1,132 yards, eight touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating north of 110. Has anyone seen "fragility?" Have we heard from "nervousness?" Privately evaluate this.

What the command performance told us: Whether you're a fan or evaluator, it was time to stop doubting Brady and just embrace the fact that we're officially in unchartered territory. Tom Brady at 41 is professional football in the great wide open. When the Patriots win their first game next month, Brady will pass Brett Favre for the most wins by any starting quarterback after turning 40 years old. If he stays healthy, he'll likely pass Vinny Testaverde for the most pass attempts after turning 41. When Brady finally does decide it's time, he will own the record book.

Perhaps this is the year Brady gets old. Perhaps. His increasingly mythic diet and fitness regiment has undoubtedly played a role in his enduring prime, but there are limits to human biology. I mean ... right? Brett Favre eventually washed up on Mortality Beach. So did Vinny T, Warren Moon and even Peyton Manning, Brady's erstwhile nemesis. Brady has turned conversations about longevity into a one-horse race in the same way he reduced the "best quarterback ever" debate to smoke and rubble.

We're all curious how long this can continue. I'm sure Brady and his trainer/best bud/shaman/Belichick thorn Alex Guerrero are similarly inquisitive. How long can we keep this up?

For a guy who has been The Answer for 20 years, it's the most fascinating question of all.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus. For more from Hanzus, listen to the "Around The NFL Podcast."

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