Tom Brady got the better of Bill Belichick as the Buccaneers eked out a 19-17 victory in New England on Sunday night. But Belichick also got the better of Brady in the Patriots’ heartbreaking 19-17 defeat in the much-ballyhooed “revenge game.”
Both can be true for the GOAT quarterback and GOAT coach after they played and coached against each other for the first and likely only time.
The Buccaners leave the game 3-1 and well-positioned to chase their Super Bowl repeat with Brady. The Patriots leave the game 1-3 and more certain that their rebuilding plan without Brady is in good hands with rookie replacement Mac Jones.
Tampa Bay gave Jones and the Patriots’ limited offense a big opening toward a massive upset because of major secondary and pass-rush injuries. New England also took advantage of Brady not having his key partner in revenge, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and him having to connect with his other receivers on a rainy night vs. a tough pass defense.
The difference was two points; for the purposes of where the teams are headed in 2021, that’s a virtual draw.
Here’s why the Buccaneers were even bigger winners from the game and the Patriots didn’t lose anything in the big picture:
1. The Buccaneers rediscovered their rushing attack
Brady picked the Bucs because they wouldn’t be fully reliant on his right arm to win games. He had a rough night Sunday (22-of-43 passing, 269 yards passing, 6.1 yards per attempt, 70.8 rating, no TDs) in a variety of ways — including missing on passes he usually completes — and needed to be lifted by a running game that had struggled over the first three weeks.
Leonard Fournette came through with best game since his strong playoff run with 20 carries for 91 yards, but he played an even more critical role with three catches for 47 yards while Brady’s new James White, Giovani Bernard, was on the shelf along with Gronk. Ronald Jones added six carries for 25, yards and finished a crucial second-half drive with the Bucs’ only touchdown.
That was a better yard- and clock-grinding plan for complementary football, too, because the Bucs’ pass defense neeed to be exposed less. Few high-flying passing teams can reinvent themselves for a battle of attrition, but the Bucs had Brady’s back when he needed and wanted it the most. Tampa Bay also got good practice for closing out lesser teams on the ground, with a favorable stretch of Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans over the next month before a Week 9 bye.
2. The Patriots found their real passing attack
The Patriots wisely abandoned their rushing attack against a nasty Bucs’ run defense. They used to be one-dimensional by design with a young Brady and it got good results. So they had to be pleased with how Jones responded to a matchup-based game plan that placed a big burden on him.
Jones threw a lot against the Saints, too, but he was in major catchup mode and the defense could tee off. Here, the Patriots, who rushed eight times for minus-1 yard (Brady had 3 yards himself), trusted Jones with an old-school, Brady-like dink-and-dunk game plan to multiple receivers on short to intermediate passes.
IYER: Why Jones is more contrast than clone of Brady
Jones (31-of-40 passing, 275 yards, two TDs, one INT, 6.3 yards per attempt, 112.0 rating) was up to the task. Jakobi Meyers showed again why he’s a slot ace, but there was also a perfect blend of the Patriots’ two new wide receivers (Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne) and two new tight ends (Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith). The wideouts got open against replacement corners — mostly Richard Sherman — while Henry and Smith delivered red-zone scores in the same game for the first time.
Between those five players, the Patriots have a lot of route and alignment versatility to scheme open someone for Jones. When Jones was blitzed, he often quickly found favorable one-on-ones. When he wasn’t, he hung in the pocket and spread the ball well. The Patriots would still like to run effectively to take pressure off him, but Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should have greater trust in letting him loose with high volume.
3. The Buccaneers’ defense still has a key calling card
Tampa Bay’s pass defense already was a mess down Jason Pierre-Paul on the edge and missing corners Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean. Then it lost top corner Cartlon Davis (quadriceps) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (concussion) on Sunday night.
The injuries haven’t affected the Buccaneers’ extremely tough defense against the run because of their beefy defensive tackles and rangy linebackers. To every opponent, everything now screams “Throw, throw and throw some more!” on this version of Tampa Bay, especially with a faded Richard Sherman now in the mix.
That’s also of some help to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. It’s still easier to operate against a one-dimensional offense because the defense can always be in “pin their ears back” mode and Bowles still knows he can disrupt plenty by blitzing his best defender, linebacker Devn White. The Bucs went into the game with only three sacks but revved up for four against Jones. They gave up yards, but they were more focused in forcing takeaways.
When the Bucs’ pressure and coverage are in ideal health and harmony, you get their Super Bowl 55 dominance of Patrick Mahomes. But whatever happens on the back end, the front three and the linebackers can still dictate plenty.
4. The Patriots’ pass defense passed its toughest test
The Patriots were No. 2 in passing yards allowed coming into the game, but they did all their work against the Dolphins, Jets and Saints, three teams not built to have the most explosive aerial displays. The Patriots’ ability to frustrate Brady with varying coverage looks was tied to having a strong, deep secondary even without a healthy Stephon Gillmore and a versatile pass-rushing committee led by free-agent prize Matthew Judon.
J.C. Jackson has developed into a premier corner, and he held Mike Evans in check. The Patriots have been tough on the slot all season, and they kept Brady from throwing often to Chris Godwin with Gronkowski out. Antonio Brown broke free several times, but the Patriots avoided the backbreaking deep ball.
The Patriots get the Texans next, and rookie Davis Mills will feel like a cakewalk compared with the Brady review film. Then it will ramp back up to Dak Prescott and the Cowboys before cooling again for a second meeting with Jets rookie Zach Wilson.
New England can get to 3-4 before Week 8, and when they’re not facing young guns Justin Herbert or Josh Allen, they have six more so-so QBs to flummox in the second half, ending with Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence in Week 17.
Should Jones keep getting more confident and efficient with each game and if the defense can keep them in games, nine or 10 wins are available for the Patriots.
While the Buccaneers badly needed to escape to keep pace in a loaded NFC, the Patriots needed something inspiring to take into the rest of the season and allow them to think they still might have a playoff team instead of a more developmental one. In that sense, Sunday night was a win-win for Brady and Belichick in their differing missions in 2021.
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