Tom Brady and the Buccaneers had just enough to edge the Patriots, 19-17 (Photo: Louriann Mardo-Zayat)
By KEVIN McNAMARA
FOXBORO – When Tom Brady finally had cleared up his locker, packed his clothes up and made his way into the interview room across from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ locker room late Sunday, you could see the weariness in his eyes.
The 44-year old had just survived an emotional roller-coaster, a week that he’ll never have to face again. From the moment he reported to work Wednesday and started preparing for his trip back to New England, the legend in cleats tried his best to satisfy one request to empty his heart after another.
How did he feel about coming back to Gillette Stadium?
Did he really like Bill Belichick?
What type of reception did he expect at the stadium he helped build into an NFL oasis?
Was this game a referendum on the greatness of a career seemingly with no end in sight?
You get the drill. You’ve heard all the questions.
The drama and the pressure that every Patriot fan expected to be swirling around Brady was legit. He may have spoken of a focus on the football and Bill Belichick’s defensive tactics bit when Brady and the Bucs somehow emerged as 19-17 winners, you could just see the relief and the emotion rolling off the quarterback’s shoulders.
Just how the Buccaneers packed up and left with a victory at Gillette is hard to explain. In truth the Super Bowl champs were largely out-played. Brady, in fact, was largely out-played by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The Kid racked up more yards (275-269) and passed his team into the end zone twice to Brady’s zero. With his back to the wall Jones drove his team down the field in the final two minutes until the march ended at the Tampa 37.
Yet they keep score in competitive sports and when Nick Folk’s 56-yard field goal try knifing through rain and wind thumped against the left upright and fell to the turf, the Patriots’ well-earned run at an upset died. Did Belichick consider going for it on 4th-and-3 from the 37 with plenty of time on the clock? “I mean, not really,” was all the Coach would offer afterwards.
We can certainly argue with that decision, especially with the way Jones was playing. But the storyline of the Kid beating the Legend was not to be on this night. This night was all about Brady, even if he overthrew too many receivers and only led his team into the end zone once in four tries. Four Ryan Succop field goals bailed Brady out, the last coming from 48 yards with just 1:57 left on the clock.
That boot ultimately doomed the Patriots and allowed Brady and the Bucs (3-1) to leave town smiling.
“We had some mistakes that limited us to really scoring touchdowns (or) it would’ve been a lot different,” Brady said. “I’m just proud of our team. Tough weather, we had to grind it out. They did a good job (on defense). They have a good team, good cover players, a good rush. They had some good hits on me tonight. I’ll be a little sore tomorrow.”
New Englanders stayed awake after this one, no doubt wanting to hear what their Favorite Son had to say about his trip to town. From the moment he hopped off a bus and walked into the Omni Hotel in Providence Saturday night, Brady knew he was back home. He’s a Mount Rushmore athlete in these parts, always will be. Fans paid handsomely to see him one last time at Gillette and they were rewarded with a back-and-forth thriller. The come-down from here is massive. The Patriots will wake up Monday morning with a 1-3 record and start preparing for the winless Houston Texas.
Welcome to the other side of the NFL. The glamour never stops.
Brady will march on and try to win an eighth Super Bowl alongside Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Leonard Fournette and (hopefully) the newly-injured Rob Gronkowski. Beware anyone who bets against him.
Yet Brady also seemed to know that this is home for him. He said he didn’t pay much attention to the tribute video the Pats played for him. Too focused on the game. But he’s not dumb. He knows there will be a Tom Brady Day here at some point, no question. This was probably the very last time he’ll throw a competitive pass in the stadium but certainly not the last time he hears cheers rain down upon his shoulders.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Brady said. “Obviously there could be an opportunity to come back here, we’ll see. I feel like I’ll always be a part of this community. I’ll be up here quite a bit when it’s all said and done. When I retire I have a lot of friends up here. It’s a great place. My kids were born on Beacon Street (in Boston). It’s been an amazing place for me, it’s still is.”
Belichick made his way to midfield and gave his former pupil a hug after the game. He also found his way into the Tampa locker room and sought out Brady. We can try to read all sorts of underlying meaning into these moves but anyone who tries to figure out the Old Coach is playing a futile game. He’s a strange cat, for sure.
What matters is that Brady and the Bucs found a way to keep marching on, while Belichick and the Pats keep rebuilding. It’s not about a last laugh right now. Brady won that right a year ago, and will have a chance to keep winning in the playoffs in January.
The Pats? They are a fumble and a missed field goal away from 3-1. But you are what your record says you are and 1-3 means you have a long, long way to go to get to the playoffs.
Sunday night was a tough reminder for Patriots fans what was for 20 years and what could still be now. It was tough to swallow, for sure. But no one who owns a clue can hold anything against Tom Brady. He is a legend in cleats, even at 44 years old one of the best in the business. So even on a night when he wasn’t even the best quarterback on the field, he was the one tucking a smile and a victory into his gym bag as he left Gillette and disappeared into the night and a flight to his new home in Tampa.