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Tom Brady Takes Down Patriots, but Bill Belichick Can Still Get Last Laugh

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 4, 2021

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls out a play at the line of scrimmage during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Steven Senne/Associated Press

Tom Brady or Bill Belichick? Who was really the driving force behind the New England Patriots' 20-year dynasty? 

This specific question dominated conversations and coverage in the week leading up to Brady's return to New England. It was his first meeting with the Patriots since he donned a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform.

However, as the late, great "Rowdy" Roddy Piper once said, "Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions."

For the first time since Brady left in free agency last offseason, the Patriots didn't miss the franchise's all-time greatest player. 

In fact, Bill Belichick and his staff, along with the team's fanbase, have to be asking themselves, "Did we really find our long-term starter in the same game where the one who got away returned and left with a victory?"

Yes, they did.

Mac Jones outplayed Brady in the 19-17 loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. 

Sure, the three-time league MVP deserves credit. Everyone knew his return was a big deal, even if the participants tried to downplay its significance. Throughout the week, the two sides said perfectly nice and mundane things about one another. 

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"Consider him a tough quarterback to defend? Is that the question? Yeah," Belichick told reporters Wednesday. "He's as tough as any quarterback there is or ever has been. Enough said."'

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 03: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Gillette Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Ge
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Belichick even admitted he and the Patriots wouldn't have experienced similar success without Brady. 

Brady responded in kind, "I had Coach Belichick there to teach me. Every Tuesday, we would meet and go through the entire defensive starting lineup, and their strengths and weaknesses, what we could attack, what he was watching, and how I could see the things that he saw, so I could gain confidence and anticipate.

"When I look back at that time, it was a really growth stage part of my career. It was a development of myself as a player, but also as a person off the field. And I was soaking up all the information."

To the coach's initial point, his former quarterback completed 22-of-43 passes for 269 yards. In doing so, he surpassed Drew Brees as football's all-time leading passer. 

Pro Football Hall of Fame @ProFootballHOF

#⃣1⃣: @TomBrady has surpassed Drew Brees for the most career passing yards in @NFL history @Buccaneers | #GoBucs | #TBvsNE 🤝 @TGHCares https://t.co/6UXlihsqIi

The 44-year-old signal-caller did look a little amped up to start the contest and airmailed a few passes. Also, Brady's weapons didn't necessarily help him along the way with multiple drops or an inability to make a play on well-placed passes. In the end, he orchestrated a pair of drives near the end of the first half and fourth quarter that turned the game in the Bucs' favor. 

Basically—and this trait isn't valued enough in quarterback play—Brady didn't lose his team the game. Despite extenuating circumstances, adverse weather conditions and an off-night overall, he made the necessary plays without any accompanying mistakes. As Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said after the contest, Brady had a "very careful" approach to his performance. 

Throughout his 22-year career, Brady's teams are 28-18 when he doesn't throw a touchdown pass, according to ESPN Stats & Info. A quarterback doesn't always need to carry his team. Sometimes, he simply needs to take care of the football and not place his squad in any predicaments. 

Brady and his teammates will be perfectly happy leaving the Northeast with an ugly victory and a 3-1 record to remain atop the NFC South alongside the upstart Carolina Panthers. 

From an actual play perspective, Jones leaves the contest—albeit in a loss—with soaring expectations. The rookie did everything in his power to place his team in a position to win. They let him down. 

The Patriots knew what they were last offseason. The organization pulled out all the stops to maximize Brady's final years. However, the roster grew old, and the franchise's financial flexibility went rigid. The talent base wasn't as good as it had been throughout Brady's tenure. 

"We weren't as good an option as Tampa, so I mean, you'd have to ask him about all of that," Belichick said last week. "But that's really…it wasn't a question of not wanting him. That's for sure."

New England required a reset. The organization didn't have an obvious heir apparent to Brady. The Patriots spent last season stuck somewhere between a rebuild and the thought they could still compete. Ultimately, the squad finished 7-9, missed the playoffs and the team's leadership knew they needed to make massive changes. Fortunately, Mac Jones fell in its proverbial lap with the 15th overall pick. 

Jones' pocket presence, smooth release, quick delivery and decisive throws placed the Patriots in a winning situation. Unfortunately, Nick Folk's 56-yard field goal attempt (in the rain) clanged off the left upright with 52 seconds to play. 

The fact New England was in a position to win at all, though, speaks volumes about Jones' performance. 

Steven Senne/Associated Press

"Just like I thought he would be, calm and cool. Played his tail off," Arians said of Jones. "Yeah, he gave his team a chance to win."

The rookie attempted 40 passes and completed 78 percent of them. He finished the contest with 275 passing yards, two touchdown tosses and an interception. 

Unlike Brady, Jones had to carry his offense because New England had no running game whatsoever. The Patriots finished Sunday's contest with minus-one rushing yard. As the Boston Globe's Ben Volin noted, it's the lowest total in the franchise's history. Josh McDaniels called only eight running plays. 

Granted, the Buccaneers' secondary had been decimated by injuries, with both Carlton Davis and Antoine Winfield Jr. leaving the contest and not returning. Also, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean didn't play. Nonetheless, Jones sat back and picked apart the Buccaneers' pass defense. He tied one of Brady's franchise records with 19 straight completions, per ESPN Stats & Info.

More importantly, Jones' calmness in the pocket should lead him to a lot of success in future years. The rookie shredded the blitz against one of the game's most aggressive defensive play-callers in Todd Bowles. Jones consistently identified oncoming rushers, stood tall and delivered the ball to vacated areas. 

"He's one of the guys now. We don't see him as a rookie," veteran safety Devin McCourty told reporters. " ... He has everybody's trust in that locker room."

The Patriots should have won. They didn't, but it's not because of their quarterback. The Buccaneers remain the team to beat in the short term. Brady continues to show why he's the greatest anomaly in professional football history. However, New England clearly has a bright future with Jones leading the way. 

"He looks like a baby Tom," Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said of Jones. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski

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