By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Like you really need us to tell you what to watch for when Tom Brady returns to New England this weekend. All eyes will be on the quarterback in his grudge match against Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
It is truly a unique and special weekend in New England, with the man responsible for those six Super Bowl banners hanging in Gillette Stadium returning just a few months after he won his seventh Lombardi Trophy with a different franchise. Very few blame Brady for leaving, and fans will get a chance to see the GOAT one final time in person in the stadium he called home for two decades. He gets a crack at his former head coach who didn’t really want him anymore, and Belichick gets a chance to put his defensive brainpower to work against one of the greatest to ever sling a football.
The game just oozes with storylines and is well worth all of the hype that has surrounded it this week. It’s the biggest regular season game of the NFL season, and probably the most anticipated game in Foxboro to date. And for a few hours, we can forget the whole “Why did it have to end” debates/discussions/arguments and just enjoy some football.
Without further delay, here is what we’ll be watching for when Brady and the Buccaneers come to New England on Sunday night.
Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
Watch everything Tom Brady does. It’s that simple.
If you’re going to the game, get there early to watch his pregame routine. Watch if he does his patented run down the field before the game — and see if he throws out one of those LFGs when he reaches the end of it. Watch him zing warmup passes on the sideline. Watch him soak in everything Gillette has to offer one last time. (Bonus points if you can count all of the No. 12 jerseys in the stands.)
Buckle up for the ovation that Brady will receive. There are some out there who see him as a traitor, but they’re in the minority, and their boos will be drowned out easily. Brady’s reception is going to rival the earth-shaking cheers from the other biggest games at Gillette; the Snow Bowl, the double comeback against the Ravens in the 2014 AFC Divisional Round, and all of those AFC Championship Games. “Brady! Brady!” chants are going to echo throughout Norfolk County all night.
And then when the game starts, watch Tom Brady be Tom Brady. He’s 68 yards away from taking his spot atop the all-time passing yard list, which he should accomplish sometime in the first quarter. Brady reaching the top at Gillette just feels right. After he does that, watch him calmly and coolly deliver bullets down the field and surgical passes over the middle. And as painful as it is, watch him connect with Rob Gronkowski again.
It will certainly hurt that all of this will come while Brady (and Gronk) are wearing Buccaneers uniforms, but soak it all in. This is one unique and special game for Brady, Belichick and Patriots fans.
The Postgame Handshake
With most people expecting a Bucs blowout — or at the very least, a comfortable Bucs win — Bill Belichick’s postgame reaction may be all the entertainment we get in the second half. And it is no understatement that all eyes will be on how the Patriots head coach receives his former franchise QB after the game.
There are two ends of the spectrum here. Belichick will either do what he did with his former mentor Bill Parcels and shove people out of the way to get to Brady. He also gave Jimmy G. a giant hug after a bad Patriots loss last season. So maybe this weekend he does the same with Brady, and may even lay a Robert Kraft-like smooch on the QB’s cheek (though that’s not the wisest idea in COVID times, especially not with Brady battling his second cold in eight years).
Or Belichick will offer up an ice cold “good game” and dead fish handshake, rivaling the one he’d give Eric Mangini whenever the two would cross paths. Bill is not always the happiest of campers following a defeat, so we shall see.
But given how special their two-decade run together in New England was, we’ll lean to the former and predict a big hug between Belichick and Brady.
Brady’s Offense vs. Belichick’s Defense
Neither of these guys plays checkers, so this will be the ultimate chess match between one of the NFL’s best offensive players of all time and one of the best defensive minds of all time. A violent, three-plus hour chess match.
Brady obviously has the upper hand, with a ridiculous offense comprised of Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Gronk. Antonio Brown rejoined the team Thursday after his 10-day COVID absence and like Brady and Gronkowski, will have a little extra juice as he tries to show up his former team. Brady also has Leonard Fournette out of the backfield. He wasn’t very effective running the ball against the Rams last week, but can snag passes out of the backfield, which will make life all the more difficult on the New England defense.
With all of those weapons on offense, Brady tops the NFL with 10 passing touchdowns and is second in passing yards with 1,087. He’s completing 68.8 percent of his passes, an impressive figure that Gronk would round up and giggle about.
The Patriots have a good defense, and their secondary has been impressive despite the loss of Stephon Gilmore to start the season. Overall, ball magnet J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills have been pretty good at corner, and safeties Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips have been fantastic. But they’re coming up short when it comes to making important stops at key moments, which has hurt them in New England’s two losses. Now the secondary has to go up against one of the best air attacks in the game. Good luck with all of that.
The big wild card in this one is Matt Judon, who has been an absolute wrecking ball for the Patriots defense. Set him free on Brady and maybe, just maybe, that pressure can make the QB work a bit more. Maybe.
Mac’s Bounce Back
Coming off a three-interception afternoon against the Saints, Mac Jones needs to have a bounce-back effort on Sunday. The rookie was dejected after last week’s loss, and that was on full display as he sat alone on the bench as everyone else left the field. It has been an emotional few games to kick off his NFL career, and now he gets to try to keep pace with Tom Brady and the Bucs. Sorry kid, things aren’t getting any easier.
But Mac has shown us that he’s really good at keeping himself focused on what he needs to do. It’s not Mac vs. Tom, but Mac vs. the Tampa defense. And the Tampa defense has had its issues this season.
This could be the weekend that Jones finally breaks out in the passing game. The Bucs are allowing 338.3 passing yards per game, which ranks dead last in the NFL. They brought in Richard Sherman this week to help in that area, and we may see him Sunday night.
Tampa’s pass rush also ranks at the bottom of the league with just three sacks on the season. Jones may actually have some time to throw his passes this weekend. But in order for that to mean anything, his targets have to get open. Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers need to start getting some separation. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry need to start doing… anything.
This may be the weekend that the offense finally breaks out of its slump and gains some yards in the air. But in the end, it may not matter, not with that guy in the No. 12 jersey leading the other team.