The most highly anticipated family reunion in years will take place Sunday night in Foxborough.
Tom Brady's return to the city where he helped build the greatest dynasty in the modern NFL is sure to offer pomp, circumstance and perhaps a tinge of resentment when the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers face off against the New England Patriots.
Not since Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis with the Denver Broncos in 2013 has the NFL seen a surefire first-ballot Hall of Fame QB visit the city where he grew his legend so soon after donning a new jersey. The circumstances surrounding Manning facing the Colts were much different. The iconic QB's Indy tenure essentially came to an end when a neck injury forced him to miss the entire 2011 season, inherently putting the Colts in position to draft universally acclaimed prospect Andrew Luck. In 2012, Manning earned Comeback Player of the Year honors by leading the Broncos to a 13-3 record and division title, while Luck was a rookie Pro Bowler with an 11-5 record and sky's-the-limit potential. Consequently, that 2013 game was wholly a nostalgic celebration.
There will be some conflicting feelings around this week's highly anticipated showdown in Gillette Stadium.
Brady's split with the Patriots came after years of Bill Belichick scouring for an eventual replacement for the aging signal-caller. Thing is, Brady never aged. Oh, he got older according to the Gregorian calendar, but as far as his football ability, TB12 remained at the pinnacle of quarterbacking.
When we hear about couples parting ways after decades of marriage, the questions are often, "What happened? Why now?" At times, the answer's simple: Some people just grow apart. To keep evolving in this game called life, occasionally setting out on a new path is the best way to get somewhere.
And so, after 20 years together, Belichick and Brady split up in 2020.
In ways, it felt mutual. Belichick wanted to move on to the next phase of his organizational plan. Brady desired more input and freedoms not afforded in New England. Of course, that doesn't preclude cynicism from lingering behind reciprocal words of admiration.
Basking in the Florida sunshine, the 44-year-old Brady is playing like he's 20 years younger, having a blast off the field, unleashing humorous social media posts, ribbing other players publicly, putzing around on national TV playing mediocre golf. Oh, and hoisting his seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Like an ex peeking at a former flame's social media accounts, Patriots fans must be all up in their feelings watching a happy-go-lucky Brady playing like it's 2011. Happy he's thriving, sad it's in a different jersey.
And so, the stage is set for a Sunday Night Football game with much more meaning than your average Week 4 affair. The undercurrent of this matchup has built for months, with Brady's return circled on all the calendars. The desire to win will be palpable. And with both teams coming off a Week 3 loss, the appetite for victory ramps up even more.
Let's set one thing straight: Sunday's game will NOT determine whether either team succeeds or fails in its quest for 2021 glory. Months will remain to decide that.
But still, in the hearts and minds of many, the meaning is deeper. The subjects listed below don't need a win in the life-or-death, win-or-go-home sense. No, it's a much more cerebral need. They need it like you need to beat that car off the line when the light hits green because you know that mother trucker will cut you off. They need it like you need to peddle hard through the cooldown period of a spin class because you must pass that last person on the Peloton leaderboard. They need it like you need to scoot in front of that mother with two toddlers and a shopping cart full of groceries, so you're not in line for an hour. Need is relative.
And so, with that in mind, let's begin our rundown of who needs a win most on Sunday night.
1) Bill Belichick
Belichick lives by a day-to-day mantra, focusing on one game, one practice, one rep at a time to achieve the best possible outcome. But make no mistake: A man who grew up immersed in everything football knows well about legacies. And he cares about his. Oh, The Great Mumbler won't say it outright. But a man who has been involved in multiple books, NFL films productions about his life and was an analyst on NFL Network's NFL 100 All-Time Team cares deeply about legacy. For Pete's sake, he renames his boat -- currently VIII Rings -- after every Super Bowl win.
And with those eight rings, Belichick's legacy should be untouchable. This is the man who has led some of the best defenses in history. The man who schemed to slow down Marshall Faulk and "The Greatest Show on Turf," then did the same to the McVay Wunderkinds 17 years later. The wake of Belichick's success is littered with those who attempted to take his throne.
And yet, with Brady moving to Tampa and immediately winning a Lombardi Trophy, the sharks are beginning to smell hints of blood. Was it actually Brady who carried the Patriots dynasty? The door has been open to question both Belichick The Coach and Belichick The Team-Builder. He's even taking shots from Brady's trainer, Alex Guerrero, who said Belichick "never evolved" near the end of TB12's Pats tenure.
The coach has to be champing at the bit for this opportunity to shut up those who foolishly think it was Belichick or Brady instead of Belichick and Brady who built the dynasty. Not that he'll openly admit it. Belichick will talk about how it's the next game on the schedule, how he still admires Brady, yadda, yadda, yadda. But it has to be burning him up that Brady won that Lombardi immediately after leaving Foxborough.
The Pats staring at a potential 1-3 start to the season -- which hasn't happened to Belichick since 2001, back when Brady first took the starting reins -- adds extra importance to New England's hopes of finally turning the page from the Brady era.
"No Days Off" is a lifestyle. Legacy is everlasting. With a win, Belichick could remind the football world that he's still a legend.
2) Tom Brady
Too old? Too old? Please. Brady has already stuffed Father Time in a locker with no escape hatch. Anyone gripping tight to their argument against TB12 being the G.O.A.T. had that wafer-thin parchment washed away amid a sea of confetti in Tampa Bay this past February. System QB? Bahahahahahaha. Please. He might not run like Lamar Jackson or make off-balance throws like Patrick Mahomes, but Brady's ability to win pre-snap is second to none. It's how he won all those years in New England. It's how he thrives at age 44. Getting that seventh Super Bowl ring without Belichick must have been the sweetest taste for Brady's unquenchable thirst for victory.
For some, that win might have been enough. Brady proved he could win without Belichick. But that's not how the most competitive man in NFL history operates. No, he finds slights hidden like a football autostereogram. Undoubtedly, real or perceived, the slights from his end in New England still drive him today. Beating his former mentor on the road in prime time would give Brady another "I told you so" moment.
Last Sunday's loss in L.A., in which Brady dropped his first ever regular-season game where he threw for 400-plus yards with a 100-plus passer rating, will add to the importance of this Sunday's matchup.
There are also additional historical elements to Sunday night for Brady. He needs just 68 passing yards to pass Drew Brees and set the NFL's career record on the very field he compiled most of those yards. With a win, Brady would also become the fourth QB in NFL history to beat all 32 teams, joining Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. So, yeah, it's kind of a big night for TB12.
3) Mac Jones
What better way for the rookie quarterback to state unequivocally that he's the Pats franchise QB than to beat Brady? It's always better to be the man who follows the man who followed the legend. Jones taking over after Cam Newton's unsuccessful season in New England has provided the rookie some buffer in the Brady comparisons. But with TB12 on the other sideline Sunday, plenty will compare and contrast.
Despite some rocky moments, including Sunday's 3-INT day, Jones has acquitted himself pretty well up to now, but Week 4 offers his biggest test as a rookie facing a fierce defense in prime time. He had plenty of those at Alabama, but doing it in The League is a different beast. From an in-game standpoint, if he can hold up against the Bucs' ferocious pass rush, there are yards to be had. A banged-up Tampa secondary allows intermediate and shallow routes to be completed, taking away the deep shots. That works right to Jones' strengths.
Beating a legend is never easy, but in that Peyton Manning homecoming back in 2013, that's exactly what Andrew Luck did, winning 39-33 to hand the Broncos their first loss of that season.
Sunday's matchup won't be a referendum on Jones' career -- no single game is -- but a win could go a long way in shaping how it unfolds.
4) Rob Gronkowski
After years of putting his torn-up body on the line in New England -- while underpaid compared to his worth -- Gronk has plenty of reasons for #Revenge. A rejuvenated beast, the tight end has been dominant through the first few weeks of the season, looking every bit the HOF force he was with the Patriots. Gronk wanting his own pound of flesh in NE would be natural. But, for him, the likely motivation lies in what a victory might mean to his BFF, Brady.
If Brady weren't in Tampa, Gronk would still be doing studio shows on FOX. He returned for TB12. Like that buddy who would lie down in traffic for you, Gronk has Brady's back no matter the situation. Come Sunday night, you can bet your britches Gronkowski will be juiced to win in Foxborough. And if he gets the chance, those Gronk Spikes will have extra oomph.
UPDATE: Rob Gronkowski (ribs) will not travel with the team or play against the Patriots, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Saturday.
5) Patriots' defense
Let's discuss the first aspect that relates to the 2021 season on balance. New England retooled its defense after struggling in 2020. Several faces returned, including Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, while Belichick added Matt Judon on the edge. The improvement of youngsters like Josh Uche has helped the Pats' D rebound thus far. But they have yet to face a top-tier QB -- with all due respect to Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson and Jameis Winston.
Brady comes in scorching hot, playing like he's time-traveled to his 20s. Can this New England defense stop a top-three QB? Belichick has befuddled signal-callers by taking away preferred reads and forcing secondary players to beat him. TB12 is the king of spreading the ball around. Slow Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown will eat you up. There is no weakness to this pass offense. It will be fascinating to see how Belichick approaches facing Brady. And it will be the best indication we'll have on whether this Pats defense will rebound and be the unit we're used to seeing in Foxborough.
6) Josh McDaniels
More than Belichick, McDaniels' NFL success has revolved around Brady. In three seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator outside of New England, McDaniels' offenses have never ranked higher than 19th in points scored. Last year was brutal for the Pats' offense. Only in the 2008 campaign, when Brady went down with injury in Week 1, has McDaniels' offense shined sans TB12. It's easy to deploy an offense with the G.O.A.T. How about with a rookie? McDaniels' tutelage of Jones this season will be a true test. Can he build an offense to a rookie's strengths and put Jones in optimal situations to win? In a prime-time environment Sunday night, will McDaniels trust the young QB or coddle him?
During the end of Brady's tenure, the surrounding weapons were often the cause of consternation. Trashed as not good enough. It was said Belichick never provided Brady the talent to thrive consistently in those final years, particularly at receiver. How well does that sit with Jakobi Meyers, the main holdover?
7) Robert Kraft
Billionaire winners aren't used to not getting everything they want. Kraft is part of the Have Your Cake And Eat It Too crowd. In this case, it was an old slice of cake that Belichick was convinced would soon gather mold. Instead, that cake spent February smearing icing on another Lombardi Trophy. Kraft wanted Brady to retire a Patriot. He didn't get his wish. The owner is likely to have torn emotions facing his former darling QB.
Watching his club lose each of their first two home games to start a season for the first time since 2000 likely sticks in Kraft's craw. A prime-time win against Brady in his building will go a long way to Kraft being convinced his club made the right decision to move on, even if it hurts to watch Tom having a ball in Tampa.
8) Bruce Arians
Let's be honest: Arians doesn't need much outside of three fingers of whiskey and a comfortable chair. Turning 69 years old on Sunday, Arians has gone from a forced "retirement" in Pittsburgh, to head coach, to retiring for a year, to lifting a Lombardi Trophy. The quarterback whisperer shepherds a high-powered offense and a stingy defense looking to repeat as Super Bowl Champs. Life is damn good for BA.
But Sunday, Arians faces Belichick, against whom he's not fared so well during his career, like most coaches. Arians is 0-2 in his career as a head coach and interim. As a coordinator in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Arians went 2-4 against Belichick defenses. The Bucs as a team have been cannon fodder in their few meetings with the Patriots this millennium. After beating the Pats in Belichick's first season in New England, the Bucs are 0-4 in matchups (2005, 2009, 2013, 2017). The Pats have outscored Tampa 105-24 in those four tilts. Ouch. Obviously, this is a much different Bucs team across the board. Arians getting a win Sunday night would be a nice birthday present.
9) Tom Brady Sr.
A father always sticking up for his son is nothing new. That's a tale as old as time. But TB Sr. sounding off on Belichick's handling of TB12's departure from New England last week underscores the importance of Sunday's game for the Brady family.
In those comments, you could feel the need for this win from Tom Sr., who has always been the quarterback's biggest cheerleader. A victory for his son in Foxborough would be the icing on top of Brady Sr.'s Boston Cream Pie.
10) Boston fans
Poor Boston fans. After years of being the Evil Empire, they watched their Golden Boy move to Tampa and bring all that success with him. Boston won 12 major titles when TB12 was in NE (six Super Bowls; four World Series; one Stanley Cup; one NBA Finals). With Tampa winning three championships (one SB, two Stanley Cups) in the span of 10 months, Title Town followed Brady south.
Many Boston fans continue to root for Brady like children caught in the middle of a divorce, clinging to their No. 12 jerseys on late, nostalgic nights. Sunday will provide a wide range of emotions for the locals. Cheer Brady, they will. But they'll want a W more. After all, eventually (right?) Brady will retire, but their hometown team will endure. A win would help heal the wounds from the breakup and definitively usher in a new era in New England.