Sunday marked one of the biggest days in the history of New England sports as Tom Brady made his long-awaited return to Foxboro to take on Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
For those of you living under a rock this past week, the visiting Buccaneers would outlast the Pats and take home the 19-17 win in a tightly-contested battle.
It’s funny, since the schedule was released a few months back and leading up to Sunday, I was not as jazzed as the rest of the region about the matchup. Sure, it was a big deal, interesting and I was certainly not going to miss it, but at the end of the day, teams and personnel change every year.
However, in the hour prior to kickoff all of that changed for me. Between the montages of Brady’s illustrious tenure in New England which included six Super Bowl titles, old players being interviewed, the stands being sold out and rocking, I literally had butterflies in my stomach in the moments leading up to kickoff.
There was the wonderful feeling of nostalgia in the air, as well as the tension that you feel leading up to a heavyweight boxing match. Watching some of the greatest in their respective fields about to go head to head … It was special.
I also was totally engaged when the analysts started breaking down the X’s and O’s of the matchup. For so many years, Pats fans would laugh at opposing teams when watching them try to solve the Brady riddle. On Sunday, it was strange but fascinating to be on the other side of it.
Overall, Brady and the Bucs got the win. Although, I think it is fair to say that Belichick got the better of the matchup. Brady was clearly anxious in the opening half and overthrew more balls in those two quarters than he does in two complete games of work. Belichick also threw a ton of different defensive coverages and disguises at him. Brady settled in and settled down in the third and fourth quarter, but to hold him and the high-flying Tampa offense to 19 points was impressive.
Speaking of impressive, it is hard to not be encouraged by the play of rookie quarterback Mac Jones for the Patriots. Other than one boneheaded, cross-field throw that was nearly picked off late in the game, Jones played composed and confident. He made throw after throw, made adjustments at the line, ran through his progressions smoothly. He did everything that he needed to do to give his team a chance to win.
Which leads me to my next point.
The biggest gaff in my opinion was Belichick’s decision at the end of the game to allow kicker Nick Folk to go for a 56-yard field goal instead of giving Jones a chance to convert on 4th-and-3 to extend the drive and move closer to the end zone.
Look, I understand that Jones is a rookie. I understand that Folk has been one of the best kickers in the league for the past two seasons. However, it was pouring down rain, Folk had an injured plant leg, and Jones was on fire. Belichick clearly felt that putting the game in the hands, or on the foot rather, of a veteran instead of in the hands of a rookie was the conservative approach. In actuality, it probably would have been a safer bet to go with the kid.
Not to mention the fact that had Folk connected on the unlikely field goal attempt, Brady would have had a minute and two timeouts to return the favor and get into field goal range. Brady can do that in his sleep.
Despite Belichick making the biggest mistake of the game, I still would give him the edge in the matchup. Both his offense and defense played well enough to win. Remember, the Pats were also a sizable underdog.
Ultimately though, the Bucs just made their plays at the right time. If you ask me, I actually think the Pats made more plays and landed more punches, if you will. The Bucs just made their plays and landed their shots in the critical moments.
A lot was also made of the officiating, which I will agree was suspect throughout the entire night. I am reluctant to say it gave one team the advantage, because each team suffered from and were rewarded by miscalls. The refs were just way too involved on both sides, so although the poor officiating was a factor, it was not really an advantage if you ask me.
Does this game give Brady or Belichick closure? Probably not. Well, Brady won a Super Bowl last year without his former coach, so what other closure did he really need? Same with Belichick. Would a head to head win over his former pupil be a feather in the cap? Yes, but anything short of one more championship won’t be anything more than an ancillary achievement.
At the end of the game, Brady was greeted warmly by his former teammates and fans. Patriots owner Robert Kraft embraced him prior to the game, Belichick caught up with him after, for what was called a friendly, 15-minute exchange behind the scenes.
The two sides’ breakup in 2020 was not exactly amicable. Brady wanted to stay and felt he had plenty of football left, but the Pats decided it was time to move on. At the end of the day, as fun as a grudge match and rivalry is, there is something warm and fuzzy about mutual respect that also must be celebrated.
We got that all on Sunday night, and the exciting game on the field was just the cherry on top. Between the back story and the game, there is a lot to chew on and I could give you opinions on just about everything. But at the end of the day, the Tom Brady return lived up to the hype, and it was just such a special night to be a New England sports fan.
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