Future forecast: What is a realistic expectation for Tom Brady at 43?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now in his 20th NFL season, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will experience a scenario he never has before in Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff game against the Tennessee Titans (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS).

Because he is an unrestricted free agent after the season, and New England is prohibited from assigning him the franchise tag, the game could be Brady's last at Gillette Stadium as a member of the Patriots.

On Thursday, he said he hasn't thought about those things.

But in October, Brady had acknowledged the "unique" situation ahead, saying he felt an obligation to fulfill his contract while adding, "I'm enjoying what I have. I don't know what the future holds, and the great part is, for me, football at this point is all borrowed time."

If Brady decides to "borrow" another season in 2020 -- and he has consistently said his goal is to play until he's 45 -- the first question is with what team? That will be sorted out in time.

The second question, which also comes with intrigue because Brady has already reset the boundaries in becoming the first 42-year-old quarterback to start every regular-season game, is what is a realistic expectation for him at 43?

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner sees two parts to it.

"From the Brady side, there's no different expectation than what you've always had," said Warner, who now serves as an analyst on NFL Network. "I didn't play until his age, I played until 38, but you could argue my second-to-last game was the best I had ever played.

"The second part of the equation is the team. This team doesn't have the pieces and the experience; for Tom, there aren't the go-to guys he's had in the past who are able to meet his expectation when they step between the lines. Tom understands that because he remembers when he was a rookie and a second-year player, and they didn't count on him to be this Tom Brady. Obviously, Julian Edelman is still there, but if you only have one of those guys, it is easier to take that guy away [as a defense]."

And therein lies what Warner sees as the "balancing act" in assessing what Brady's football life might look like at 43.

If Brady returns to New England, or signs with another team, his presence would likely have a trickle-down effect on how the offense is built because of his experience.

Brady famously said five years ago, "When I suck, I'll retire." He certainly doesn't suck, as many would happily take his stat line from this season: 373-of-613 for 4,057 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

But after a 2019 season that saw his production dip in several notable categories -- in part due to the supporting cast around him -- he isn't operating at the same level he was earlier in his career, such as some years when he was teammates with current Titans coach Mike Vrabel (2001-08).

"I still see a lot of accuracy. I still see a lot of quick-release, decisive throws," Vrabel countered this week. "He's been able to win a lot of football games, get the ball to a lot of different people, to get everybody involved. He's got an uncanny ability to find the guy that's open, execute the game plan, plays, and play-action."

The oldest quarterbacks to start an NFL game are Atlanta's Steve DeBerg (in 1998, he was 44 years, 9 months), Kansas City's Warren Moon (in 2000, he was 44 years, 0 months), and Carolina's Vinny Testaverde (in 2007, he was 44 years, 0 months).

Brady (42 years, 5 months) is next on the list, but the difference between him and the others is he is still a full-time starter. DeBerg, Moon and Testaverde were backups called upon in spot duty at that stage of their careers.

So it makes sense to think that just as Brady's career began as more of a manager of the offense than a full-fledged star, that type of dynamic could be the way it unfolds if he elects to play at 43 and beyond.

That direction, in part, is reflected in his passing yardage. In 2017, Brady totaled 4,577 yards in a season he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Last season, he had 4,355 yards, and this season, 4,057.

Still, Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson, 38, wouldn't put it past Brady to keep playing -- and at a high level.

"They say age is a number, and that's kind of true. Obviously, we all have an expiration date of our lives in its entirety, but also on our careers. It doesn't mean you can't do great things as you get older, and you get outside of whatever the norm is in pro sports," Watson said. "He's proven that."

Brady has already smashed the age barrier at quarterback. His 36-12 record since turning 40 is easily the best of any starter in league history, with Brett Favre (13-12) next on the list. Brady has thrown 85 touchdowns and 27 interceptions during that span, with a 96.0 passer rating.

"It doesn't happen by accident," Watson said. "It's definitely a blessing for him to be able to play, but also, he's put in a tremendous amount of work mentally, physically, emotionally to be able to keep doing it over and over again. To have that competitive stamina he has is really amazing."