By: Shane Petagna
Branded as ‘The Return,’ perhaps the most anticipated regular season game in NFL history took place in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Tom Brady squared off against his former team, the New England Patriots in front of the fans at Gillette Stadium.
25.8 million people watched Brady and the Buccaneers defeat the Patriots 19-17 in a back-and-forth contest, the second highest ratings for a Sunday Night Football game ever. With the win, Brady became the fourth quarterback of all-time to defeat all 32 teams in the NFL.
Brady also overtook Drew Brees for first place on the all-time passing yards list. His 80,560 career yards could be an unbreakable record for some time, as the closest active player to the record is over 19,000 yards away. It’s fitting Brady broke the record on the field where he accumulated most of those yards.
“I feel good that we won,” said Brady in a postgame interview. “It was just some emotional moments thinking about coming up here and playing.”
In the buildup to the game, the emotions were high. The biggest question was how the fans would welcome Brady back to Foxborough. As Brady ran out from the tunnel dressed in Buccaneer red and pewter instead of the blue and red he wore for the first 20 years of his career, the fans showed their appreciation. But once he took the field, those in attendance switched gears and rooted on for their hometown team.
“I think that Brady coming back to New England went as well as it could have,” said Jacob Baskin, freshman sports management major. “I was happy that Brady was able to have that moment, because he did plenty for the Pats.”
Brady didn’t have an exceptional game, which could be credited to Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. The winningest quarterback and coach duo in NFL history dominated professional football for 20 seasons, so they would know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
The game was a defensive battle. New England was able to stop the Bucs offense in the red zone and forced them to settle for a lot of field goals. Ryan Succop made four field goals and one extra point, but did miss a 36-yard attempt in the second quarter that proved to be costly later in the game. Brady completed 22 of 43 pass attempts for 269 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions and was sacked once.
Despite not having Rob Gronkowski, a teammate with Brady in New England for nine seasons, the offense was able to do enough to pull out the win.
Gronkowski, hoping to make his own return to the field in New England, missed the game because of the four cracked ribs, one broken rib, and a punctured lung suffered against the Rams. Brady utilized the remaining stars in the receiving corps, relying heavily on Mike Evans and Antonio Brown. Evans had seven receptions for 75 yards, and Brown finished with seven catches on 12 targets for 63 yards. Ronald Jones scored the only touchdown for Tampa Bay on an 8-yard run with 3:29 left remaining in the third quarter to give the Bucs a 13-7 lead.
The Patriots responded immediately, as Brady’s replacement, Mac Jones, led a seven-play drive in which he completed seven passes to take back the lead to start the fourth quarter. The first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft set some records of his own in the game. The rookie’s career completion percentage of 70 is the highest of any quarterback in his first four starts. Jones outplayed Brady in the box score, connecting with 31 of his 40 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. At one point Jones had 19 consecutive completions, the most ever by a rookie quarterback according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“Even though the attention was not on him, he played well against a bad Bucs defense,” said Connor Pelesh, sophomore sports management major and writer for blitzalytics.com. “It’s not easy to play under the lights.”
After New England went up 14-13, the Bucs and Pats traded field goals, leading to a 17-16 New England advantage with 4:34 left to play. Brady did what he does best and led the Bucs down the field to take back the lead for good. Succop’s 48-yard try was good for his third go-ahead field goal of the night.
Jones and the Patriots tried their best to spoil Brady’s homecoming. New England got the ball back with 1:57 to play and marched all the way to the Tampa Bay 37 yard line. On a 3rd & 3, Lavonte David deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage that would have gone right to a wide open Jakobi Meyers and extended the drive. Instead, New England had to march out the field goal unit for a 56-yard attempt. The kick had the distance but hit off the left upright and was no good.
Brady got the best of his old coach. The two men briefly embraced at midfield during post game handshakes, and later had a twenty-minute private discussion at the stadium. In what was likely the last time Brady ever got to play in front of Patriots fans, the game was a memorable one.