8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Buccaneers -7, Over/Under: 49
Legacy is the theme for Week Four as all eyes will be fixated on Foxborough where a certain seven-time Super Bowl Champion returns to battle the team that he led to all but one of those Lombardi Trophies, as the (reigning champion) Tampa Bay Buccaneers battle the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. If there was one game on the schedule that (three-time MVP) Tom Brady (68.8%, 1,087 YDS, 7.14 NY/A, 10 TD, 2 INT, 66.3 QBR) had circled, there was never any doubt that it was this one, as the 44-year old returns to Foxborough for the first time since leaving as a Free Agent back in the Spring of 2020, ending an outrageously successful run that by most metrics is widely considered to be the greatest that any Quarterback has enjoyed with one franchise in the history of the National Football League. So lets take a moment to run down the numbers, shall we? From 2000 to 2019, Brady led the Patriots to SEVENTEEN division titles and subsequent postseason appearances, THIRTEEN AFC Championship Games (including an NFL record eight straight from 2011 to 2018), and NINE Super Bowls in which they won SIX of them (2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, 2016, and 2018), all the while amassing a ridiculous 219-64 (.773) record as the Starting Quarterback during the regular season and (yet another NFL record) 30-11 (.731) in the playoffs. Furthermore, after arriving to Foxborough as a 6th Round Pick (199th Overall!!!) he would go on to throw for 74,571 yards and 541 touchdowns, authoring fifty-eight game-winning drives and forty-five fourth quarter comebacks (including the Playoffs), while earning a staggering FOURTEEN Pro-Bowl nods, a pair of Offensive Player of the Year honors (2007 and 2010), Comeback Player of the Year (2009) after missing virtually all of the 2008 campaign with a torn ACL, and three MVP awards (2007, 2010, and 2017), as well Super Bowl MVP on four occasions (2001, 2003, 2014, and 2016). And then there are the unforgettable moments; from the controversial Tuck Rule during the 2001 Playoffs to his game-winning drive to upset the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI that launched his legend, to shattering a plethora of records in 2007 en route to leading the Pats to a perfect 16-0 regular season only to meet humbling defeat in Super Bowl XLII, to the controversy of Deflategate, to penning the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history (2016), Brady’s tenure with the Patriots runs like a Hollywood script, plain and simple, and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see anything like that again in our lifetime. And it’s with that said that his departure from New England via Free Agency was so surprising. Sure, he was 43-years old at the time, an unprecedented age for anyone by league standards, but he was still performing at a high level, which is something that he continued to do upon arriving in Tampa Bay. Indeed, Brady authored yet another riveting chapter to his career in transforming one of the most dysfunctional teams in the league into a well-oiled machine (in a pandemic no less), with the Buccaneers (2-1, T-2nd in NFC South) catching fire down the stretch en route to embarrassing (reigning champion) Kansas City in Super Bowl LV (31-9), winning yet another Super Bowl MVP in the process (21-of-29, 201 YDS, 3 TD). It’s clear that neither side wants this love affair to stop, as (Head Coach) Bruce Arians and (General Manager) Jason Licht moved mountains to ensure that this group would remain intact to properly defend it’s title, becoming the first reigning champion since 1977 (Oakland Raiders) to return all twenty-two starters on both sides of the football. So with three games in the books, how have the Bucs done thus far? Well, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag early, with the Offense ranking first in the NFL in points (34.3) and eighth in total yards (418.6), despite being very one-dimensional; the rushing attack has been an afterthought at 56.3 yards per game (31st Overall) on an average of 16.0 attempts (32nd Overall), with Arians opting to allow his Quarterback to do his thing as Brady has paced the league with ten touchdown passes. Interestingly, the Defense, which was such a major component of their championship run, has struggled mightily in the early stages of the campaign, with the Secondary in particular getting roasted by the opposition; Tampa has yielded a disappointing 27.3 points (27th Overall) on 402.0 total yards (26th Overall), including a league-worst 338.3 yards against the pass (32nd Overall). Given their size and physicality up front, opponents simply aren’t willing to rush into the teeth of the Defense, opting instead to pick on a depleted defensive backfield; (Cornerbacks) Carlton Davis (14 TKL, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Jamel Dean (13 TKL, 1 PD) have been banged up of late, with the latter of the two suffering a knee injury over the weekend that is likely to keep him out of tonight’s affair. Clearly there is some concern over Dean’s status, as Tampa is bringing in (former All-Pro Cornerback) Richard Sherman to help stop the bleeding on the back end. While last Sunday’s 34-24 beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams may serve as cause for concern to some, we’d implore Bucs fans to relax at this point, for after all, this was a team that didn’t really figure it all out last season until after their Bye Week in early December; Arians’ charge were 7-5 following back-to-back disappointing defeats to the Rams and Chiefs, before coming out of their bye like gangbusters, winning eight straight games culminating in Super Bowl victory. Besides, as we stated in the opening, if there is one team that they won’t be experiencing a let down against, it’s obviously the Pats, for Brady simply won’t be allowing anyone in the building to be focusing on anything else. Oh, and we’ll leave you with this: barring injury, Brady is almost certain to pass Drew Brees on the all-time passing yards list tonight, with a scant sixty-seven yards separating the two future Hall of Famers, and is there a more appropriate venue for him to make such history than Foxborough?
Meanwhile, they may not openly admit it, but the Patriots (1-2, 3rd in AFC East) have also had this particular matchup highlighted in bright yellow as they welcome back the greatest player in the history of the franchise while they continue to find their way through this bold-new era following his exit. And make no mistake, this matchup means the world to (Head Coach) Bill Belichick, whose relationship with the aforementioned Brady has been a consistent source of material for the national media, who as you can imagine have covered this matchup at nauseum. Of course, when discussing all that aforementioned success that the franchise enjoyed over nearly two decades the debate was always who was more responsible: Brady, the greatest Quarterback in NFL history, or Belichick, equally lauded as the greatest Head Coach to ever put on a head set? Obviously, the logical answer is that both individuals played seismic roles in New England’s era of dominance, with Brady’s prolific performances and clutch heroics complemented perfectly by Belichick’s masterful stratagems and attention to the most minute detail. However, somewhere along the way the relationship between the two pillars of the organization became strained. Could it have been the prolonged drama that was the aforementioned Deflategate? Or perhaps it could have been when the three-time Coach of the Year threw a tantrum after he was “forced” by ownership to trade (former Backup Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo? Or how about the 69-year old’s power play against Brady’s longtime trainer, Alex Guerrero? Either way, Belichick ultimately decided that renewing his Quarterback’s contract at the age of forty-three was indeed a pill to bitter to swallow, effectively closing the book on the franchise’s dynasty and moving the Pats into a new era. So with that said, how has this new chapter unfolded in Foxborough, you ask? Well, as Brady went on to lead the Buccaneers to their second Lombardi Trophy in franchise history, the Patriots predictably missed the playoffs last season, finishing a disappointing 7-9, which marked not only their first January without the postseason since 2008, but their first finish below .500 since Belichick arrived at the turn of the century. Injuries, a lack of depth, and (of course) COVID-19 all played a role in their downfall, with everyone looking forward to 2021, when they put their wealth of cap space to good use, and rebuild their depleted roster properly. Few teams were more active in Free Agency than New England, who went on a shopping spree like never before during the Belichick Era; (Tight Ends) Jonnu Smith (10 REC, 74 YDS, 7.4 Y/R, 0 TD) and Hunter Henry (10 REC, 109 YDS, 10.9 Y/R, 0 TD), (Receivers) Nelson Agholor (10 REC, 110 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 1 TD) and Kendrick Bourne (9 REC, 123 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 1 TD), along with (Edge-Rusher) Matt Judon (9 TKL, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 3.5 SK), (Cornerback) Jalen Mills (9 TKL, 1 PD), and (former Pats) Trent Brown and Kyle Van Noy (6 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 PD) were all signed in Free Agency, while (longtime Linebacker) Dont’a Hightower (11 TKL, 1 QBH) returned after opting out of 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19. However, the most notable acquisition came during the 2021 NFL Draft, where Belichick did something that he’s never done during his reign with the franchise: select a Quarterback in the First Round, namely Mac Jones (67.5%, 737 YDS, 5.38 NY/A, 2 TD, 3 INT, 52.0 QBR). Few Quarterbacks saw their stock rise throughout the evaluation process than Jones, who after coming off a sensational senior year at Alabama in which he completed 77.7% of his passes for 4,500 yards and forty-one touchdowns en route to a National Championship, slowly won over scouts around the NFL with the intelligence, accuracy, and mechanics displayed in workouts, eventually landing in Foxborough at No. 15 Overall. As you can imagine, this led to a Summer-long competition between he and the incumbent Cam Newton, who spent most of 2020 as the Starting Quarterback to mixed results. Though the general opinion was the the former MVP would indeed open the campaign as the starter, Belichick made waves when he released the 32-year old in Mid-August, paving the way for the Rookie to take over. Through three games it’s clear that Jones has a ways to go, for he has been slow to get the Offense going thus far; the Patriots have averaged just 18.0 points (26th Overall) on 337.4 total yards (22nd Overall), with the running game in particular proving to be an eyesore, churning out a disappointing 91.7 yards (24th Overall) on a meager 3.9 yards per attempt (21st Overall). This was supposed to be the strength of the attack this year, but has instead turned into a weakness, proving to be the primary culprit for their struggles in the red zone, where they rank dead-last at 25.0%. Throwing the football in that particular area of the gridiron is always difficult, and not being able to move the ball between the tackles only compounds matters, and given their situation in the Backfield it’s hard to see them turning it around some point in the near future. Remember, Belichick traded (Tailback) Sony Michel roughly two weeks before the season began, and (versatile) James White (22 TCH, 132 YDS, 6.0 Y/T, 1 TD) was lost for the year after suffering a serious hip injury. It should also be noted that a good deal of this unit’s success on the ground was due to the presence of Newton, who in addition to rushing for 592 yards and a team-high twelve touchdowns, created precious opportunities for the likes of Michel and White to make plays. Jones on the other hand is a conventional pocket passer in every sense of the term, so (Offensive Coordinator) Josh McDaniels is going to have to look elsewhere for answers. Either way, this Coaching Staff should know that marching a Rookie Quarterback out there without the benefit of a consistent ground game to lean on is akin to playing with fire, and they were absolutely burned in this regard during last weekend’s 28-13 thumping at the hands of the New Orleans Saints; the Pats could muster just forty-nine yards on the ground, with Jones attempting a staggering FIFTY-ONE passes, three of which were interceptions, with one returned for a touchdown on the hosts’ opening drive of the second half. Simply put, this is NOT a sustainable blueprint for New England, who need more balance on this side of the football if they’re to weather the growing pains that comes with raising such a young passer.