Patriots

After all the buildup, this is the issue: Is there any way the Patriots can actually beat the Bucs?

We all know what a formidable opponent Tom Brady is, but Bill Belichick has stunned the supposedly unstoppable before.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots have a formidable foe. JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Welcome to Season 10, Episode 4 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

After a week of relentless, unavoidable noise … a week of talking points and blame pies, remember-whens, and historical reconsiderations … a week of juicy book excepts and ego-measuring contests and chatter about vengeance, comeuppance, and occasionally even some football, finally — finally — the game has arrived.

I’m not sure that every one of the nine Super Bowls that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady competed in together was preceded by as much hype as the Patriots’ matchup with the Buccaneers. I’m telling you, there was more buildup for this Week 4 game than there was for Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers.

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The buildup was all a little much — do we really need to hear from Alex Guerrero and Tom Brady Sr.? — but it is entirely understandable.

The greatest quarterback and player in NFL history will square off with the greatest coach in NFL history for the first time after two decades of building their legacies and hoarding Lombardi Trophies in unison.

Going their separate ways, which occurred against the wishes of any reasonable Patriots fan when Brady signed as a free agent with the Buccaneers, has worked out much better for the quarterback so far.

At age 43, Brady led the Bucs to a Super Bowl “upset” of the Chiefs, as if any victory with Brady at quarterback is an upset. He now is a seven-time champion, and should he win another Super Bowl with the Bucs, there will be an argument to be made that he has had not one, not two, but three Hall of Fame-worthy careers packed into his 22 seasons: the 2001-07 three-Lombardi stretch, the post-knee injury 2009-19 stretch, when he won three more Super Bowls as a Patriot, and then his Bucs tenure.

Hey, if Eli Manning and his 117-117 career record is a Canton shoo-in because he won a pair of Super Bowls, then Bucco Brady would be too.

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No one who has ever buckled on a chinstrap knows the challenges of trying to repeat as champion the way Brady does, but the Bucs have a chance. They returned all 22 starters from last season, but they come to Gillette Stadium with a 2-1 record after losing to the Rams last week.

Brady, who threw for 432 yards in the loss, needs just 68 passing yards Sunday to surpass Drew Brees’s career record of 80,358. He might own the record before the national anthem singer makes it to “home of the brave.”

The certainty of Brady getting the yardage record is the least of the Patriots’ concerns. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has been under siege, which led to rookie mistakes in last Sunday’s 28-13 loss to the Saints.

If dropping to 1-2 with Brady coming back to his old neighborhood weren’t enough, the Patriots lost versatile running back James White, just about the most dependable friend a quarterback could have, to a hip injury.

In his first matchup against his former coach, Brady appears to have every advantage other than home field, and even that may go his way if the game gets out of hand early. But perhaps it will be tighter than the tale of the tape suggests. That’s why they play ‘em. Thank goodness they do.

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Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady

Rob Gronkowski: Some Patriots fans will be upset at him for how it ended here. Some might even boo. Gronkowski dragged out his retirement decision in March 2019, costing the Patriots a shot at attempting to replace him in free agency. When he decided to play again last fall, he and his advisers leveraged his way to Tampa to join Brady.

You know what? That’s fine. Bitter departures happen. I’ll remember Gronkowski as the best all-around tight end in football history, an absolute joy to watch, and a good-natured goofball who gave his all to this team, enduring by his count nine surgeries when he was here.

His rejuvenation with the Bucs — he has 16 catches for 184 yards and 4 touchdowns this season — is cool to witness, even if it comes with a little bit of envy that Bucs fans get to pretend another player who made his legend here actually belongs to them.

Gronkowski is in their club for now. But they’ll never know the fun of watching him throw someone out of one for the first time.

Antonio Brown: On the depth chart of Bucs players the Patriots have to worry about, Brown is probably fourth or fifth, behind Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Gronk at the least.

Brown, who is back from the reserve/COVID list, has six catches for 138 yards and a touchdown in two games. But this much is certain: It would be extremely annoying if he has any success Sunday, and not just because he’s a loathsome character in general, though that is reason enough to root against him.

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Brown is a major reason the stress fracture in the Brady/Belichick relationship turned into a clean break. The notion that Belichick didn’t try to get Brady any weapons is absurd.

Remember those first weeks of the 2019 season, when we thought the Patriots were going to be stacked at receiver, with Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Brown, and rookie first-rounder N’Keal Harry? There wasn’t even any room for accomplished veteran Demaryius Thomas on the roster.

It turns out that the Patriots didn’t acquire the right players, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying. Brown lasted all of 11 days with the Patriots, catching four passes in Week 2 against the Dolphins before his past caught up with him and he was cut. Brady seemed to mope about the move, and it was telling that he had no qualms about wanting Brown with him in Tampa.

Isaiah Wynn: We’re just using Wynn, the left tackle who showed up on the injury report midweek (knee), as a representative of the line as a whole here. The unit was supposed to be a strength, but it has struggled, including allowing Mac Jones to be hit 11 times and sacked twice by the Saints. The Bucs have big names and big bodies on their line, including Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, but they’ve managed just three sacks so far. The Patriots need to subdue the Bucs’ rush and give Jones a chance to make plays against Tampa Bay’s 31st-ranked and injury-plagued pass defense.

Grievance of the Week

If you’re one of those caterwaulers who claim Belichick’s coaching record without Brady is evidence that he’s not good at his job, I’m going to assume you lack perspective, context, access to the Internet, memory of the bookend Super Bowl wins against allegedly unstoppable Rams teams, and anyone in your life who actually cares to hear your weak Patriots takes.

Key matchup

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick

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I mean, what else could the choice be? The Patriots’ punt-block squad against Bucs punter Bradley Pinion? C’mon. Belichick versus Brady, Round 1, is the greatest mental showdown, the most compelling collision of football intelligence, in NFL history.

Has there ever been a matchup in which both participants have as much insight about how the other thinks as Brady and Belichick do from their 20 seasons together? Joe Montana and Bill Walsh never went head to head, nor did Steelers lifers Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw.

Brady once said that after two decades as an NFL quarterback, he’s seen it all and feels like he has “all of the answers to the test.” And it’s true. But Belichick taught the class.

Brady, who we should note sounded pretty hoarse midweek, has the easier task here if he’s close to 100 percent healthy. He has superior offensive personnel at his disposal, and even if Belichick comes up with some unexpected looks for the Patriot defense — I keep thinking of some variation of the roaming, no-down-linemen defense he used to befuddle the Bills’ Drew Bledsoe in November 2002 — Brady eventually will solve it, even if it takes him a little longer to finish the test.

At the very least, we’re going to gain insight on what Belichick thinks a team needs to do to stop Brady. Will he flood the middle of the field with defensive backs (they sure could use Stephon Gilmore this week) and dare him to put the ball in his running backs’ hands (the Bucs average just 3.5 yards per carry, 26th in the league).

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Will he scheme up ways for the Patriots to get pressure up the middle, perhaps by moving Matthew Judon (2½ sacks last week) all over the field?

And will Brady or Belichick cook up something that the other isn’t prepared for? Is that even possible? Cannot wait to find out.

Prediction, or does Blaine Gabbert have the easiest gig in America?

It’s not difficult to envision how the Patriots can win this game. I don’t think they will. But they can. The first step: They don’t have to run the ball with such effectiveness that they look like they’re paying homage to Corey Dillon’s 2004 season, but Damien Harris has to at least be good enough to put Jones in winnable second- and third-down situations.

That’s not an easy task against an athletic front six or seven on a defense that allows just 3.1 yards per carry. (For all the talk about ex-Patriots this week, the one player I’d love to swipe off Tampa Bay’s roster and add to the Patriots is super-athletic linebacker Devin White.) But it’s not an unreasonable request either.

More important to the offense is to give Jones time to throw — and multiple options to throw to. The Patriots were most effective against the Saints when they spread out their receivers and trusted Jones to find the open man.

Against a beaten-up Bucs secondary, the Patriots may find some favorable matchups. This would be an ideal week for Jones to hit Nelson Agholor or a deep one, or to get Jakobi Meyers his first career receiving touchdown, or both.

You know what they have to do on defense: slow down a vengeful Brady and his talented cadre of receivers.

Is it all too much to ask? Probably. But Belichick has stunned the supposedly unstoppable before. The outcome won’t be satisfying. But the game itself will live up the hype. Buccaneers 27, Patriots 20.

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