It rained Sunday night, a fitting Foxborough development. Bill Belichick had to wear his hoodie over his head, and Tom Brady had to get by with a slick ball. If the Patriots were going to host the most surreal reunion in NFL history, the football gods were going to make everything just right.
Brady did just enough in the final minutes to put Tampa Bay ahead, nearly hitting on a long third-down touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, who dropped it in the back of the end zone before the Buccaneers settled for a field goal and a 19-17 lead.
Working without the injured Rob Gronkowski, Brady couldn’t throw for a score in this game, and completed only a bit more than half of his passes. He was going against a defensive mastermind after all, a Patriots head coach who had turned over his team to a rookie quarterback who looked like Brady’s much younger brother.
Mac Jones had the ball and the moment in his hands as the clock started to bleed dry, as Belichick and Brady watched helplessly from their sidelines as he settled their family feud. Jones had already thrown two touchdown passes. This time the first-round pick from Alabama needed only a field goal.
As it turned out, Nick Folk couldn’t give it to him, not from 56 yards. Folk’s kick hit the left upright. Belichick winced and lowered his head, and Brady pumped his fist. It’s a game of inches, right? When it was all over, the visiting quarterback was 1-0 in Gillette Stadium this year, and the home team’s head coach was 0-3.
Belichick gave Brady a quick hug, and patted him on the right shoulder pad. Later, Belichick walked into the Tampa Bay locker room and met with Brady in a private area for more than 20 minutes.
“I have a lot of respect for him as a coach, and a lot of respect for this organization,” Brady said, his voice hoarse. The winning quarterback said it had been an emotional week, and he called the fans’ response to him “awesome.” On his stormy exit, Brady said, “My football journey took me somewhere else.”
Jones had outplayed Brady by a lot Sunday night, and it didn’t matter. Brady won the game because he always wins the game, and Belichick, who was 5-13 in New England before Brady took over, now stands at 8-12 since Brady left him for some fun in the sun.
“It’s disappointing to come up short here tonight,” Belichick said.
Wasn’t it ever? When someone in Belichick’s news conference tried to ask him about facing Brady for the first time, the Patriots coach interrupted to say, “We went against Tom Brady every day in practice defensively. So it’s not like we’ve never seen Tom Brady before. They’re a good football team and he’s a great quarterback, and I think that all goes without saying.”
Of course this whole event never should have happened. Four and a half years ago, before he had even turned 40, Brady had told me that he could see himself playing into his late 40s.
“I always said my mid-40s, and naturally that means 45,” he said then. “If I get there and I still feel like I do today, I don’t see why I wouldn’t want to continue.” When I asked him, “Who says Tom Brady can’t play at age 50?” he responded, “That’s a great question.”
So Belichick had all these years to prepare for Brady to play and play and play some more, and yet he didn’t do much of anything to ensure that his quarterback retired as a one-uniform Boston icon the likes of Bill Russell, Ted Williams, and Larry Bird. In fact, by never offering Brady the long-term contract he was hoping for and surely deserved, Belichick all but called an Uber for his franchise player and escorted him to the door.
Before Sunday’s game, on a night that was anything but customary, Brady did his customary jog down the Gillette Stadium sideline and his customary wild, leaping, profane fist pump toward the crowd. He hugged his former offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, on the field like he had earlier hugged his former boss, Robert Kraft, outside the locker room.
“Good to be back,” Brady had tweeted hours before kickoff, along with a highlight video.
It was even better to be back with a seventh Super Bowl ring, while Belichick and the Patriots were stuck on six.
Brady got his video tribute, and heard the fans chant his name. When he entered the game for the first time with 12:54 left in the first quarter, the crowd booed him. Many of the people booing were wearing his Patriots jersey, his iconic No. 12. Before the end of the quarter, Brady had surpassed Drew Brees as the league’s all-time leader in passing yards — on the very field he was always meant to break that record on. The football gods had to give him that one.
And they had to give him this rain-soaked victory over the coach who never should have let him go in the first place.