Eight years ago, Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots dismantled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home. Brady orchestrated a run of 23 straight points, throwing for two scores to a rookie wide receiver named Kenbrell Thompkins in his 51st straight game with a touchdown pass. It was Brady at his finest, making limited weapons around him better in carrying the Pats offense on his back.
Who would have ever thought the next time these teams would play in Foxborough, it would be Brady on the opposing sideline leading the Bucs? Not as a head coach, but … as a quarterback?
So it goes, the Brady-Belichick saga entering a new phase the second they step on the Gillette Stadium field Sunday night. The two legends face each other as rivals after six Super Bowls and nearly two decades together, forging the type of modern-era NFL dynasty the likes of which we may never see again in a generation.
"I think I've been on the record dozens of times saying there's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady. I still feel that way," Belichick said this week. "I was very lucky to have Tom as the quarterback and to coach him. He was as good as any coach could ever ask for."
The Bucs feel the same way with their signal-caller, at age 44, continuing to defy Father Time. The defending Super Bowl champs come in off a loss to the Los Angeles Rams but still look miles ahead of a Belichick-led team struggling on offense. They have nearly half the points (54) as the Bucs' league-leading 103, throwing just two touchdown passes in three games. (Brady, by comparison, leads the league with 10).
It puts Belichick in a rare position: underdog by a touchdown at home, something that never happened with his teams from November 2001, the early days of the Brady era, through Brady's departure in 2019. But the last time the spread was this high for the Patriots at Foxborough? Against the Ravens in November of last season?
The Patriots won. Add in the unparalleled drama surrounding this matchup and anything is possible between two teams that appear to be a mismatch on paper.
Sunday Night Football: Tampa Bay (3-0) at New England (1-2)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 3 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Buccaneers -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Brady vs. Belichick
It's the conversation everyone is looking to see, especially after a week filled with revelations. A new tell-all book, It's Better To Be Feared by Seth Wickersham is claiming Patriots owner Robert Kraft called Belichick the "biggest f***ing a**hole in my life." It fueled speculation Kraft has privately sided with Brady in any potential rift, building on last year's comments where he insisted "It's not the way I want it to end" and claiming he loved Brady "like a son."
Belichick, meanwhile, reportedly turned down an in-person meeting with Brady before his departure from the Patriots. Belichick disputed that report, declining to specify why, while making clear he's not focused on the drama heading into Sunday night.
"I've heard a few things about this book," Belichick said, "And it sounds like a lot of second-, third-, and fourth-hand comments."
How these two interact will be the most talked-about moment of Sunday night, win or lose. Do either of them have an advantage on the field, if at all?
The case for Belichick: No one knows Brady's strengths and weaknesses more than someone who coached him for 20 years. Still armed with the NFL's fifth-ranked defense (plus senior football advisor/former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia), he'll find ways to put Brady in tough situations. And the quarterback could easily fall victim; Brady threw two interceptions against the Cowboys, a far worse defense, and has been sacked six times the past two games.
The case for Brady: No one plays better when they're a man on a mission. (Latest example: last year's run to the Super Bowl). The once every four years rotation means this game will likely be his last in Foxborough if he finishes with the Bucs.
Remember the last pass Brady threw here? A pick-six against the Tennessee Titans in a 2019 AFC Wild Card matchup? Chances are he wants to change the narrative to more of a storybook ending. You don't get that by losing to a weaker Belichick team on paper.
2. There are other former Patriots too
Oh, yeah. That guy named Gronkowski. The five-time Pro Bowler is on pace for what would be a career-high 91 receptions this season at age 32. He's caught 80 percent of his targets, a haul that also includes four touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Gronk not only won't be a part of this reunion; he won't even be in the stadium. He has been diagnosed with fractured ribs that won't only sideline him on Sunday night, it could keep him out for several weeks. He didn't even make the trip to Foxborough with the team.
Ignoring the Patriot ties for a second, the real loss for Brady and the Bucs' offense is one of the team's top targets. Besides the touchdown grabs, Gronk is tied for second in receptions (16) and is third in yards (184). This presents an opportunity for fellow tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard to make an impact, but it changes the dynamics of Tampa's passing game too. And Gronk is an excellent and willing blocker, so don't downplay his absence.
Perhaps this means more targets for another former Patriot who just got reinstated from the COVID-19 list? Granted, Antonio Brown was with New England for all of one game in 2019, but in true A.B. fashion, he left his own mark on the franchise, so it still counts.
3. Can Mac Jones play better?
On the Pats' side, no matter how good the defense plays, they need to score in order to have a chance. The rookie Jones is the key part to that equation, trying to turn his season around in a year where first-year starting quarterbacks are a combined 1-11 across the NFL.
"It's really just us against the other team," Jones said when asked about starting against Brady. "And that's how it always will be. It's not like one person versus one person."
Well, sure. But Jones has more interceptions (three) than touchdowns thrown (two) in his NFL career to this point. The offense is hardly inspiring, sitting 24th in the NFL at 317.7 total yards per game, those numbers beefed up somewhat by a 25-6 shellacking of the winless New York Jets in Week 2.
All eyes will be on the Alabama rookie as the one Belichick specifically picked as the heir apparent. The Bucs' pass defense has been their biggest problem, dead last in the NFL at 338.3 yards per game allowed. It's why free-agent Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman was signed this week and is expected to play some Sunday night. The opening is there, but there also needs to be a major upgrade in performance for the Pats to take advantage.
For Jones, this matchup is all upside in that he's not expected to win. An upset here would put him on the map and help New England move on from clinging to their ex.
Count me as one who thinks the pressure here is on Belichick. Brady's already won a Super Bowl with another team and has accomplished more than any NFL player at 44. Belichick is now 8-11 since Brady left the Patriots and has left himself open to critics who claim he's incapable of being successful "without Tom."
You'd have to think the Patriots, filled with starters that know Brady like the back of his hand, will give the Tampa Bay some trouble. I'd stay away from betting first-half lines and the Patriots could take an early lead due to their efforts defensively.
But you know who's arguably one of the most clutch NFL players of all time? Who's all but certainly going to surpass Drew Brees in this game as the all-time leader in passing yards?
When even Father Time doesn't bet against him, don't expect me to start.
Prediction: Buccaneers 21, Patriots 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.