Patriots

Bill Belichick vs. Tom Brady is the most-hyped regular-season pro sporting event ever

There have been several games in Boston sports history filled with anticipation, but no regular-season game touches Sunday's Buccaneers-Patriots game in terms of hype.

Tom Brady Bill Belichick
Tom Brady's first matchup against Bill Belichick is as big as it gets for a regular-season matchup. AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

First, the disclaimer. That vast sports vault between my ears has lost a reel or two of highlights through the years.

It’s not that my mind is slipping in these middle years. It’s that there’s only so much room for storage. Hey, there has been a lot to remember, especially since, oh, January 2002 and the snowy beginnings not just of the Patriots’ dynasty, but of the golden age of Boston sports.

We’ve been so lucky to have so many games to anticipate and celebrate that even special moments can get lost, nudged to the back of the vault by the arrival of newer memories.

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That’s my way of saying I could be forgetting something here. I don’t think I am, but I could be. But until you can come up with something that has eluded me, I must declare Sunday’s Buccaneers-Patriots game, or Bill Belichick vs. Tom Brady, Episode 1, is the most anticipated regular-season professional team sporting event of all-time.

There are few NFL games that come close, and at least a couple starring the Patriots. The 2007 regular-season finale against the Giants in Week 17, when Brady found Randy Moss deep and the Patriots completed their quest to go 16-0, might be the runner-up. (Right, just as the Patriots ultimately were that season. Why did you have to say that, man?)

Almost every game in that ’07 season brought a significant measure of anticipation. The Patriots were 8-0 and the Colts 7-0 when they met in Week 9, the Patriots emerging with a 24-20 win after trailing by 10 points with less than 10 minutes remaining. A Week 12 matchup with the always-feisty Ravens came with some buzz, though Baltimore entered with a 4-7 record.

The 2003 opener against a Bills team featuring ex-Pats Drew Bledsoe and the recently released Lawyer Milloy generated plenty of noise, but the Patriots generated no points, losing 31-0. Revenge would later be theirs.

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And we couldn’t wait for a December 2011 quarterback showdown between Brady and – this is sort of humorous now – Tim Tebow. The Patriots beat the Broncos, 41-23. Tebow played pretty well for a quarterback who appeared to be throwing with the wrong arm.

We can’t forget the Tuna Bowl from Week 3 in 1997, either. The Jets’ Bill Parcells became the first coach to face a team he’d led to the Super Bowl the previous season. The Patriots, who had the far more talented team, escaped with a 27-24 win in overtime on a 34-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. He would make bigger kicks.

Excluding the Patriots, the most hyped NFL game I can recall was a Monday night bout in Week 13 of the 1985 season between the then-unbeaten Chicago Bears and Dan Marino’s high-octane Dolphins. Miami handed the future Super Bowl shufflers their only loss of the season, 38-24. The Patriots did not fare quite as well against the ferocious Bears in Super Bowl XX.

Question: Does the ’78 one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees count as a regular-season game? The statistics do, which is why Most Valuable Player Jim Rice, Mr. No Days Off,  gets credit for playing 163 games that season. And yet, we do refer to it as a playoff. I’ll leave it to your discretion, but if we’re counting this as a regular-season game, well, there’s probably never been one in any Boston sport that was more anticipated than that. Say it in unison: Bucky Bleeping Dent ...

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The only possible exception is the ’67 regular-season finale between the Red Sox and Twins, when Carl Yastrzemski went 4 for 4, locking down the Triple Crown, and the Impossible Dreamers clinched the pennant on the final day. Sing it in unison: “Caaarl Yastrzemski! … Caaarl Yastrzemski! … Caaarl Yastrzemski!  …The man we call Yaz! …

As we’ve had plenty of opportunities to confirm the last 20 years, banner-raisings and ring ceremonies always come with much anticipation. I’m not sure there’s ever been a more satisfying day at Fenway Park than the 2005 opener, when the ’04 curse-busters got their proper salute.

What’s easy to forget now is that there was an overwhelming amount of Red Sox-Yankees hype entering the 2004 season, too, after the soul-crushing way the previous October unfolded and the offseason Alex Rodriguez shenanigans. Reasonably priced tickets were virtually impossible to come by for their first series in mid-April. Even their spring training matchups in ’04 were events, which seems pretty ridiculous now.

The most hyped regular-season NBA game I can recall is LeBron James’s debut with the Heat against the Celtics in October 2010. The Celtics actually won that one, 88-80, starting four players who are now in the Hall of Fame: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Any Celtics-Lakers game when both teams are contenders comes with excitement born from years of compelling competition. The same could probably be said for Bruins-Canadiens matchups through the decades. I’d say the early Winter Classics – particularly the 2011 Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin showdown – are the most hyped modern NHL games.

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The return of Raymond Bourque in March 2001 as a member of the Avalanche was anticipated in a melancholic kind of way. A couple of months later, he’d win that Stanley Cup in Colorado that he never could here, and his victory would be celebrated with a gathering at City Hall.

It was nice, and it was kind of sad too. But soon enough, the city would have championships of its own to celebrate.

Who could have known then that an era of Boston sports excellence – and so many events that would live up to the hype and then some  —  was right around the corner?

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