CHICAGO — When his final pass to Cameron Brate fell incomplete, ending the Bucs' comeback attempt in a 20-19 loss to the Bears, Tom Brady looked quizzically toward the sideline and put four fingers in the air.
He stood frozen for a few seconds, as did his teammates, then he appeared to say, ''fourth down."
Did Brady, in his 21st season and known for his last-minute comebacks, actually forget it was fourth down?
Neither he nor coach Bruce Arians appeared willing to confirm the obvious.
Brady was asked twice after the game if he knew it was fourth down when he tried to squeeze a pass down the seam to a well-covered Brate.
“I knew we needed a chunk, and I was thinking about more yardage and then, you know, it was just, it was bad execution," Brady said. "We had a great opportunity there. So just didn’t execute when we needed do.
“... You’re up against the clock, and I knew we had to gain a chunk, so I should have been thinking more first down instead of chunk on that down.”
It was the Bears' mismanagement of the clock that gave Brady and the Bucs a chance in the first place.
They fired an incomplete pass with 1:28 remaining, and kicker Cairo Santos already in field-goal range. The Bucs only had one timeout and used it after a short completion on the next play.
Santos connected on the 38-yard field goal to five the Bears their 20-19 lead but left 1:13 on the clock for Brady.
This is what Brady’s career has been all about. He takes his team down the field with no timeouts in the final minute and sets up the game-winning field goal.
Brady started well by hitting Mike Evans on a 12-yard pass for a first down at the Tampa Bay 37-yard line.
But then he threw wildly to Evans on the next play. After a short completion for 4 yards to Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Brady missed tight end Rob Gronkowski in the flat. That stopped the clock with 38 seconds remaining and the football on the Tampa Bay 41-yard line.
The Bucs only needed another 13 yards or so to attempt a possible game winning field goal by Ryan Succop, who was perfect on four attempts Thursday.
On fourth and 6 with 38 seconds remaining, they needed a short completion and to spike the ball to save enough time for another play or two before the field-goal attempt.
But it appeared Brady lost track of the downs, despite a giant scoreboard clock, the chain markers and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich on the helmet communicator.
His low-percentage pass downfield was broken up by DeAndre Houston-Carson, and the Bears had their win.
But the image of Brady not immediately leaving the field and holding up four fingers is the image that will be the memory from that game.
After the game, Arians said Brady knew it was fourth down.
“Yeah, he knew,” Arians said. “He knew.”