The last time he appeared at Levi’s Stadium near his hometown of San Mateo, Calif., Tom Brady found himself to be the target of merciless jeers from a crowd filled with fans of the Denver Broncos, who had beaten his Patriots in the AFC title game a fortnight prior.
After all, they probably knew what Brady knew at the time: He should have been playing in Super Bowl 50, not Peyton Manning.
Alas, there was nothing more to Brady’s presence than his part in a pregame parade of all the prior Super Bowl MVPs. Then, it was officially on to an offseason during which the quarterback would unsuccessfully battle the powers that be in the NFL before serving a four-game suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season.
So, here he is, for the first time playing on the road against the team he grew up cheering for on Sunday, when the putrid 1-8 San Francisco 49ers host the 7-2 Patriots, coming off a tense loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
Injured in 2008, Brady didn’t get the opportunity to lace up when the Patriots visited Candlestick. Last season, Stephen Gostkowski’s missed extra point in Denver helped to assure there would be no dream scenario of winning his fifth ring in his own backyard. He’ll have to settle for winning a second in Houston.
But entering Week 11 of this NFL season, following a Renaissance of competition the previous weekend, the certainty surrounding Brady’s chances of getting to the Super Bowl could be characterized as dicey.
The Patriots are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders for the best record in the AFC. If the playoffs began today (which they don’t), the Patriots would, indeed, have the No. 1 seed in the conference.
Yet, they still need to travel to House of Horrors Denver next month, followed by AFC East showdowns against the Jets and Dolphins, games that don’t look like much of a threat on the schedule.
Just as they didn’t last season.
Then Patriots head coach Bill Belichick decided to kick off to the Jets in overtime. He…well, we still don’t know what he had in mind during the season finale in Miami.
Which is why some trepidation might come into this weekend’s game in San Francisco, where 49ers head coach Chip Kelly has the comfort of knowing he beat Belichick the last time around, while with the Philadelphia Eagles last December in Foxborough. That’s the game, of course, that featured the pooch punt. It’s not why the Patriots lost, 35-28, but it was, perhaps, the dawn of some oddities.
Mix the Eagles loss in with the Jets debacle and the confusion in Miami, and the Patriots ended up surrendering the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage last season, a matter that helped launch the Broncos toward the third Super Bowl title in franchise history. It was a year ago when Belichick started to tinker with his approach. It ultimately cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl.
As noted last weekend against Seattle, the New England defense isn a wreck, which leads to some question as to how Belichick will try and fix it based on the personnel he has. Or, will he try and delve into his bag of untested tricks in order to cloak the unit’s deficiencies?
“How we do this week will be based on what we do this week, not what happened last week or some other week,” Belichick said. “But there are things to be learned from previous games, there’s no question about that.”
This stretch of the schedule a year ago is a good place to start, especially considering what it ended up costing Brady.
This week’s picks
ESPN.com: All Patriots.
Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: Patriots 34, 49ers 17. “The Patriots face a long trip here off a physical game with Seattle. Normally that matters. It won’t in this one. The 49ers are playing better, but they aren’t in this class. Tom Brady comes home and lights up the team he used to root for as a kid.”
CBS Sports staff: Six out of eight pick New England (San Francisco +13).
FiveThirtyEight: Patriots with an 82 percent chance of winning.
Mike Florio, ProFootballTalk: Patriots 45, 49ers 23. “Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick torched the Patriots. The bad news is that Kaepernick is no longer that guy. The worse news is that Bill Belichick won’t go any easier on the 49ers because of it.”
Michael David Smith, ProFootballTalk: Patriots 31, 49ers 10. “The 49ers have played a little better since Colin Kaepernick took over for Blaine Gabbert, but they’re not going to keep it close against the Patriots.”
MassLive staff: Nothing but Pats.
Vinnie Iyer, Sporting News: Patriots 49, 49ers 24. “There are some concerns with Rob Gronkowski and whether he can be healthy enough to make the trip out west. Expect New England to err on the side of caution, knowing it can rebound from a loss and destroy San Francisco without him. Martellus Bennett, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, James White and LeGarrette Blount will cause enough matchup nightmares for the 49ers’ defense at every level. Tom Brady loves going home, and he’ll up an appropriate number.”
David Steele, Sporting News: Patriots 43, 49ers 26. “The Patriots got some defensive weaknesses exposed in the loss to the Seahawks last Sunday night. Don’t expect the 49ers to exploit it, though, even though Colin Kaepernick looked better against the Cardinals last week than he has in two years. The 49ers defense, meanwhile, has no chance.”
Peter Schrager, Foxsports.com: Patriots 33, 49ers 17. “Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly have a lot of mutual respect and great history. And last year, Chip got the best of Belichick up in Foxboro. But that Philly team had different talent than this San Francisco defense, New England wasn’t coming off a primetime loss and there were some guys resembling an NFL defense on that Eagles D. It’s been brutal for Niners fans. Look at the bright side — this could be the last time you see hometown hero Tom Brady, and there’s a great honoring of Eddie D on Sunday. Take what you can in a year like this.”
Bryan Altman, CBS Sports: Patriots. “I think the impermeable Patriots get a little complacent and the 49ers sneak up on them. I think San Fran actually gets up early and the Patriots have to recover to win this one. They’ll do it, but I don’t think it’ll be the walk in Golden Gate park everyone expects.”
Michael Hurley, CBS Boston: Patriots. “The combination of losing on national TV on Sunday night and Bill Belichick reminding everyone on his team that they lost to the Eagles last year means the Patriots are going to put up 50 points.”
USA Today staff: It’s all Pats.
Jimmy Kempski, Philly Voice: Patriots. “Deflatey McGee returns home to the Bay Area, where he learned to cheat as a kid.”
SB Nation staff: All New England.
Elliot Harrison, NFL.com: Patriots 37, 49ers 13. “What do you want from me here? You don’t like the score. Ok, how about 50-14? If Colin Kaepernick runs wild and Carlos Hyde adds a 100 yards of his own, perhaps the 49ers can limit Tom Brady’s possessions. Good news here: Hyde rushed for 14 yards last week. On 13 carries. New England DC Matt Patricia has done an outstanding job with his unit, but it’s worth noting that the Patriots allowed three of their six longest plays from scrimmage this season last Sunday night (36, 38 and 39 yards). Oh, what a great time for Torrey Smith to be alive. As for the 49ers’ defense, the unit showed signs of life in Arizona, but it’s on pace to be the second-worst in league history in terms of yards allowed.”
Boston Globe staff: Three out of five pick the 49ers (New England -13).
It says here: Patriots 35, 49ers 24. Patriots probably win by more, unless Belichick wants to play cute again against ol’ pal Chip.