Bucs escape Tom Brady's return to New England with a win
There was a quick hug in the middle of Gillette Stadium between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as the final seconds of the clock melted away. But long after Brady had left the field following the Bucs' 19-17 win over the Patriots Sunday, it was just the 44-year-old quarterback and his former coach sitting in a quiet space adjacent to the Tampa Bay locker room for about 24 minutes.

"Sorry to keep you guys waiting," Brady said upon arriving late to his postgame news conference. "I wasn't anticipating this."

Stuffed In a personal bag next to him was the football he used to pass Drew Brees as the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader. "That one is for me," he said. So, too, was the discussion that Brady and Belichick had privately.

"It was very personal," Brady said after beating his mentor by passing for 269 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. "We had a personal relationship for 20-plus years. He drafted me here, and we've had a lot of personal conversations that should remain that way and they're very private.

"I would just say so much is made of our relationship, and ...from a players' standpoint, you just expect a coach to give you everything he's got and I'm sure as a player, that's all he expected of me. ... I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and a lot of respect for this organization."

Brady seemed more relieved than anything following the game. About the hard-fought win in the pouring New England-cold rain, which improved the Bucs to 3-1. About the warm reception he got from Patriots fans and members of the club, including Belichick.

"It was awesome," Brady said of his return. "I tried not to predict what was going to happen or how I would feel. I had a few emotional moments this week just thinking about all the people that really meant so much to me and my life. ... I'm just very grateful for an amazing time here. Damn, my kids were born on Beacon Street in the city. ... It's been an amazing place for me. It still is."

All week long, Brady downplayed his return to Foxborough, and the truth is he knew the Bucs were in for a battle. For 20 years, he had seen opposing teams struggle in this stadium with the noise and the elements and the well-coached team belonging to Belichick.

"That little horn, what do they call that fog horn or whatever?" Brady asked of the horn that blares from the light tower in the end zone. "Man, that thing is as loud as can be. You don't think about that when the defense is on the field. It's a great homefield advantage. The fans are amazing."

The story of the game became the NFL's oldest quarterback being matched by one just coming of age. Patriots rookie Mac Jones, 23, kept up with Brady all game, but ultimately the night belonged to the seven-time Super Bowl champion.

As he has done his entire career, Brady led the Bucs 45 yards in seven plays to set up Ryan Succop's winning 48-yard field goal with 1:57 remaining. It was the fourth field goal of the game for Succop as the Patriots defense consistently kept the Bucs out of the end zone.

Jones got the Patriots close enough to win, but former Bucs placekicker Nick Folk's 56-yard attempt hit the left upright with 55 seconds remaining. Jones finished 31-of-40 for 275 yards with two touchdowns and an interception and was sacked four times, including two by rookie linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka.

Belichick mixed coverage and pressure beautifully, leaving tight windows for Brady to try and fit the ball into. The Bucs were reliant on Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 91 yards on 20 carries. Ronald Jones scored the Bucs' only TD on an 8-yard run in the third quarter.

For all the hype, Sunday's game was a defensive struggle in the elements between two motivated defenses. In fact, Bucs coach Bruce Arians said he was annoyed by the Brady versus Belichick narrative all week leading up to the game.

"I think it's very, very special for him. Obviously, he kept it inside all week and he's probably letting it all out right now,'' Arians said of Brady. "It was a big week for him but it was a big week for the team. I was very, very frustrated with everybody saying this was quarterback and coach. This is a team sport. The Bucs won this game. We beat the Patriots. We're losing sight that this is a team game. Everybody wanted to make this about Brady and Belichick. I don't think Bill played a snap. He had 22 guys out there playing their ass off and I knew they would. And we had 22 guys out there playing their asses off. One of them just happened to be named Brady.''

Perhaps, but it looked as if it took a little time for Brady to shake some nerves. After Brady arrived, he appeared relaxed as he embraced public relations director Stacey James, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Brees, the former Saints quarterback-turned-NBC broadcaster.. "It was very emotional for us," Kraft told NBC. "We were both close to tears."

When Brady jogged out for warmups, those who had already assembled at the stadium rose to their feet and gave him an electrifying ovation. As was his custom for 20 years here, Brady jogged to the end zone, pumped his first and yelled, "Let's go!!!"

Then as he took the football to begin getting his arm loose, the crowd erupted in chants of "Bra-dy! Bra-dy! Bra-dy!"

They were probably still chanting that on their drive home and wondering how he got away.

Rick Stroud, The Tampa Times, published 4 October 2021