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For some — probably the more sanguine among us — Sunday night was about Tom Brady’s return to Gillette Stadium. It was about the GOAT coming back to a place where he experienced so much glory, visiting his former haunts for a kiss from Robert Kraft, an appreciative ovation from the Foxborough faithful, and ultimately a football game against the franchise he left behind last year.
For the more sordid-minded, however, the focus of the event was more pointed than that. For them, the hype and hysteria wasn’t about the quarterback taking on his old teammates in front of a stadium full of his old fans. For them, Sunday night was about Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick.
And that’s exactly what an invigorating night ultimately became — thanks in no small part to Belichick himself.
That reality became crystallized the moment the outcome of the contest did, although, like the game action itself, it had been building toward a crescendo throughout the evening. That occurred the moment the Patriots faced fourth and three from the Buccaneers’ 37 with 59 seconds remaining of regulation, and the moment their coach faced a critical decision.
Belichick had the option to leave his offense on the field and let them try to convert for the first down, with hopes that by keeping the drive alive the Pats could presumably make a game-winning field goal try more manageable for kicker Nick Folk while also leaving less time for a potential response from Brady. Instead, though, he chose the other option. That was to send Folk out to try a 56-yard boomer — which banged off the upright as it tailed left.
Depending on the site, different statistical analyses of risk-reward come down differently on the decision. Suffice it to say, there’s justification on both sides. But what’s most telling about the choice is the way Belichick took the burden on himself by choosing that course of action. The way he took the onus off Mac Jones and Josh McDaniels. Most of all, the way he invited a staredown with Brady.
The coach and his staff had entrusted his rookie quarterback with quite a bit to that juncture. New England had tried running the ball just seven times in the game, and only twice since halftime. Meanwhile, Jones had completed 19 consecutive passes at one point, and hit on 78 percent of his throws for the game. Two of those tosses went for touchdowns. The kid played well. He did everything that had been asked of him.
But in those final minutes there was a growing sense that he’d done all he could do, like a starting pitcher who’d grinded through seven innings and put the team in a position to win before the time came to turn it over to someone else. Belichick’s equivalent to a bullpen was Folk, who said he’d made from 57 yards in warmups. Effectively, the reliever said he was ready, so Belichick brought him in.
And the sequence leading up to that call supported the decision. With 6:40 to play, Jones hit Jakobi Meyers with a 21-yard back-shoulder hookup that brought the ball into Tampa territory. A play later, Meyers flipped his role and found Nelson Agholor for a 30-yard gain after taking a lateral from Damian Harris.
It’s worth noting that it was a trick play that took the ball to the Bucs’ 9, but from there the drive fizzled. And nearly turned disastrous. After his first incompletion of the second half, Jones immediately followed with an ill-conceived throw toward Jonnu Smith that should’ve been intercepted by linebacker Devin White. Then, on third and nine, Jones slung it to Brandon Bolden, who was quickly tackled for no gain.
That forced the Pats to settle for a field goal when they really needed a touchdown. As such, their 17-16 lead was short-lived, and when they did get the ball back the rhythm developed earlier had disappeared. During the final series they only gained their first 20 yards when gifted a generous pass interference call, then they fell so far out of sync they committed two false start penalties — even if only one was called. Even the pass that put them in position for Folk’s try was another that arguably shouldn’t have counted, as replays cast serious doubt about whether Meyers really dragged his feet in bounds.
By then it was pouring. The offense looked out of rhythm. There was no chance of them running for the three yards they needed on fourth down, so the likelihood was that if the Pats were going to pick up the first down, they’d need to do it against a defense that could completely sell out against the pass, with a wet ball, and with everyone in the building expecting that wet ball to be thrown quickly and short. That’s a lot to ask of a rookie-led group that had stalled in the red zone a possession earlier, and had just sunk to 2-for-9 on third down for the day.
So Belichick didn’t ask that of Jones and his squad. He didn’t really ever consider doing so, he said afterward. Rather, he effectively invited Brady to bring it on.
If Folk had made the kick, and the Patriots had regained the lead, Brady would’ve had about a minute to get into field goal range — which had to be part of the coach’s calculus in making his decision. Still, Belichick decided to trust himself, his son Steve, and take that chance with the gameplan that had held Brady in check all evening.
Brady finished the night with just one more completion (22) than incompletion (21), and with a 70.8 passer rating. (The lowest in Brady’s previous eight regular-season tilts was 96.1.) New England did so by loading up on defensive backs, thereby allowing them to clog up the middle of the field to prevent Brady from exploiting them there, and at the same time daring Tampa Bay to run the rock. That shifted the Bucs away from their strength, and Brady out of his comfort zone.
Not only was the scheme on point, but the Patriots’ defense improved situationally on Sunday, too. They came up with stops in the sort of big spots where they failed against Miami and New Orleans. They held the Bucs to four field goals. They forced a punt after J.J. Taylor’s fumble.
Of all the nostalgia that defined the night, it was a nice call back to the times the Pats have taken on an elite, said-to-be-unstoppable offense and dictated the game’s terms and tempo with their defensive scheme and execution. We’ve seen it with Peyton Manning, with Patrick Mahomes, with the circus-act Rams, and with others. Now we’ve seen it with Brady, too.
At times, Belichick has coupled those confrontations with a tendency to be aggressive offensively. History most notably remembers this piece with the infamous fourth-and-two decision against Manning’s Colts in 2009. But as halftime approached on Sunday night, when faced with another fourth-and-change, Belichick revealed that he wouldn’t push it the same way in his latest showdown with a Canton-bound quarterback.
Just after the second quarter’s two-minute warning, he sent out the punt team from the Tampa 44. That was the precursor to trotting out Folk at the end of the night. Even if Jake Bailey pinned the Bucs deep — and he did — Belichick knew Brady would have plenty of time to get his team in a position for points. Yet the coach still conservatively kicked it away. He trusted his defense to win the game more than he did his offense. Rather than put it on the rookie, he put it on himself.
He turned it into Brady vs. Belichick, for real.
And he darn near almost pulled it off.
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