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What if Tom Brady and the Patriots Lost the “Tuck Rule Game”?

A new film explores an alternate universe in which the infamous Patriots-Raiders game went differently. As Brady said himself: “I’m probably the backup quarterback going into 2002.”

ESPN’s newest “30 For 30” documentary, The Tuck Rule: The Call That Changed it All, premieres Sunday after the 2022 Pro Bowl, putting the two central figures in one of the most impactful plays in NFL history — Tom Brady and Charles Woodson — together to watch the iconic Jan. 19, 2002 playoff game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders for the first time.

Given the timing of TB12’s retirement, which became official Tuesday, the timing could not be more poetic.

We all remember the play. Down 13-10 at home in blizzard conditions with 1:50 left, New England has a 1st and 10 at Oakland’s 42 yard line. Brady takes the snap and Woodson has a free run at the quarterback, sacking him and causing what was believed in the immediate moment to be a game-sealing fumble recovered by the Raiders.

Until it wasn’t thanks to one of the most memorable and controversial replay reviews (and reversals) in sports history that introduced so many of us to the infamous “tuck rule.” New England won the game in overtime and went on to win the first of six Super Bowls with Brady at quarterback.

Along with the two football legends— college teammates in the 1990s at Michigan, no less— reminiscing while watching the game and still arguing about the rule, directors Ken Rodgers and Nick Mascolo went further. They opted to explore an alternate universe and several alternate endings by which “The Tuck Rule” moment either played out differently or never happened at all, resulting in the Patriots losing the game and missing out on what became a world title.

Some crafty editing depicted Oakland beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game and the St. Louis Rams to win Super Bowl XXXVI, with Woodson ultimately lifting the Lombardi trophy in back-to-back years. He said in the film that if he’d won two Super Bowls in Oakland, he would’ve been “a Raider for life.”

But the most interesting what-if moment in the film took place when Brady asked what would’ve happened to him had he lost in the Divisional Round as still-unproven second-year pro:

“I’m probably the backup quarterback going into 2002.”

“That’s what I think probably happens. I think there’s a good chance I’m not the starter at that point if we lose that game,” Brady said.

With Week 1 starter and four-time Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe healthy to start the next season, maybe Brady never gets to start for the Pats again and has to find a different team. If that was the case, how many Super Bowls does TB12 end up with? He said that he still would’ve found a way to succeed in the NFL, but it very well may not have been in New England.

After the alternate ending, Brady gives a mock press conference statement.

“Coming out of that game, Belichick brought us all together and he decided, ‘you know what, I think we’re just gonna stick with Drew,'” alternate universe Brady said.

Raiders players from that game discussed what would’ve happened to Brady had they won that game. Cornerback Eric Allen said nobody probably would’ve heard from him after that. Offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy said that he was on the team “that created Tom Brady.”

As for the person who was actually in charge of making the decision, Bill Belichick maintained to Rodgers and Mascolo that Brady would have been the Pats’ starter to begin the next season no matter which way that game in snowy Foxborough turned out.

“I don’t think that would’ve changed,” the head coach insisted.

What would have changed across the NFL if the Pats lost the Tuck Rule Game? We’re talking about a lot of sliding doors here. Would Belichick and Brady have achieved even close to the same level of greatness together? Would the Raiders still be playing in Oakland? The “butterfly effect” implications are endless.

As Woodson put it: “That call really changed the trajectory of our whole world.”

What ended up happening, as Pats owner Robert Kraft said, was that the catalyst for a dynasty, a 20-year run that we may never see in the NFL again, was formed in a blur of snow and controversy.

“A lot of things could’ve changed on a couple of milliseconds of a play,” Brady said. “That was a moment that was a real turning point.”

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