There wasn't anyone who took the loss in Super Bowl XLVI harder than Tom Brady.
The quarterback didn't even move while in the locker room after the game. He just sat there, lost in thought, lost in reflection, perhaps even lost in sorrow.
Who knows what Brady was thinking about at that moment. Maybe he was thinking about one incomplete pass to Wes Welker that, if complete, would have sealed a fourth Super Bowl title. Maybe he was thinking about an interception he threw in the fourth quarter, or the safety he was responsible for in the first quarter. Maybe he was just thinking about the disappointing final score.
Or perhaps he was thinking about missing a golden opportunity to cement himself as the greatest quarterback of all time. Without that incompletion, without that interception, without that safety, Brady might have won his fourth title, which, given the consistent excellence of his career, would have pushed him up to Joe Montana—and even beyond.
That chance was missed. Brady is not at Montana's level.
But he didn't drop at all, either.
Brady is exactly where he was at the start of Super Bowl XLVI. He is in a crowd of quarterbacks at the top of the all-time list. He was in striking distance of Montana. He remains in striking distance.
After all, Brady has now been to more Super Bowls than Montana. He's tied for the most appearances of any quarterback. He goes to the big game, on average, every other year. He's won three, and—if two dropped passes are held on to—he'd have five, and be the MVP of four of them.
But those what-ifs only go so far. Brady did lose. You can't give him credit for winning when he and his team lost, just like you can't dismiss his Super Bowl XXXVI win, even though he was under 100 yards passing until the final game-winning drive.
But the loss shouldn't hurt him. If you say it does, you'd be arguing that his career was better with a 3-1 record in Super Bowls than with a 3-2 mark, meaning you'd think he'd have been better off not making it to Indianapolis at all.
Brady's Patriots were so ridiculed for their defense earlier in the season that getting to the playoffs was a question. Winning in the playoffs was a stretch. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and even New York Jets were all playing better than New England. It was time to face facts. This just wasn't New England's year.
And Brady took the Patriots to the Super Bowl. And he came "this close" to winning the whole thing again. When it appeared borderline impossible just weeks earlier.
So is Brady's legacy affected? No. Oddly enough, that's what hurts. It wasn't supposed to be unaffected. It was supposed to be immortalized. A win, and Brady's the best there ever was.
Instead, it was a loss. And Brady falls a grand total of zero spots in the eyes of history.
He said he'll always be about trying to get back to this stage. That should be the goal. He'll have nothing to lose, but plenty to gain.