Patriots fans deluded themselves with talk of "The Path" to cope with the hopelessness of a lost season, but that doesn't make the concept fanciful. Quite the contrary, a clear path exists straight to the Super Bowl.
It's just that it belongs to Tom Brady.
If you stopped viewing Brady's Buccaneers as legitimate championship material around the time they signed malignant wide receiver Antonio Brown and then lost three of four -- including an embarrassing blowout to the Saints -- then you missed Brady piloting the Bucs to his trademark perfect December. (Remember those?)
Tampa won its final four to finish 11-5 and enter the playoffs on a roll. And now it stares at an eminently navigable path that leads right back to the familiar environs of Raymond James Stadium, home to Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and also, it just happens, Super Bowl LV.
The Patriots may be starting a rebuild without a quarterback after missing the playoffs for only the second time in 20 years, but Brady hasn't lost a step. He just threw 40 touchdowns at age 43 -- only his record-setting 2007 included more -- and he could actually make a stealth run to his record 10th Super Bowl.
Consider . . . The Path
It starts with the NFC bracket. As the top wild card, the Bucs drew the fourth-ranked division winner, which would be the Football Team de Washington. Some in these parts might go so far as to call them a tomato can. They won football's worst division with a 7-9 record.
With starting quarterback Alex Smith gimping around on a strained calf, former starter Kyle Allen on the IR, and backup Dwayne Haskins unemployed after deciding a maskless night in the company of strippers sounded responsible, Washington may end up splitting snaps between Smith and Taylor Heinicke, whoever the hell that is.
It will be their job to beat Brady in a playoff game. Good luck. He has won 30 of those already, or seven more than the entire Washington franchise, which dates back to 1932.
Take care of business, and then it's probably off to Green Bay for a meeting with Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Packers. To say Green Bay has beaten no one this year is slightly unfair, but not by much. The Packers own two quality wins out of 13, beating the Saints in Week 3 and the Titans in Week 16. They didn't beat anyone else with a winning record. They are paper Packers.
Among their losses? A 38-10 shellacking at Tampa in October. The week leading up to this one will be spent hyping Brady vs. Rodgers, but history suggests that's a mismatch. Rodgers has reached just one Super Bowl in 13 seasons as a starter. More often than not, his Packers find ways to lose in the playoffs. Since winning it all in 2010, in fact, Rodgers has only reached the NFC title game three times.
He'll be fighting those demons while Brady plays with house money.
If one other wild card team wins, then the Bucs would get either the Seahawks or Saints in the second round. The former sputtered to the finish offensively, failing to crack 200 passing yards in any of its final three games, while the Saints would present a legitimate challenge that we'll get to in a second.
If both other wild cards win, Brady would face the Rams, who could be without starting quarterback Jared Goff. L.A. has already pulled out a squeaker over Tampa, and we know what happens when Sean McVay faces Brady in the playoffs. My guess is Brady's revenge for that Week 11 loss would be swift and decisive.
So that brings us to the Saints. Whether Brady gets them in the second round or the NFC title game, odds are New Orleans will stand between Brady and the Super Bowl at some point.
You want to talk about playoff ghosts? Rodgers has nothing on Drew Brees. The Saints QB is a miserable 8-8 in his postseason career, including last year's 26-20 overtime loss to the Vikings when Brees was picked once while throwing for a pedestrian 208 yards.
That marked only the second time in eight tries with the Saints that Brees failed to win his playoff opener. The problem typically comes in the next round, which he has won exactly once, during his lone championship season of 2009.
In this battle of old men, Brady will inevitably claim the upper hand on his 41-year-old rival. Is that enough to overcome a talent gap that allowed the Saints to sweep the Bucs this year? You can bet on New Orleans again if you want, but I'm not picking against Brady, not on that stage, not with those stakes.
Complete that trifecta and Brady can head home -- probably for a date with Patrick Mahomes and the defending-champion Chiefs -- for a chance to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Tampa.
That's what a real path looks like. It turns out they don't all lead straight into a ditch.
Be sure to catch Tampa Bay take on Washington in an NFC Wild Card matchup Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC10 Boston. Pregame coverage starts at 7:30 p.m. ET with Football Night in America.