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Sunday football notes

The Buccaneers and Tom Brady are adjusting to each other, and now they’re rolling

Tom Brady's 18 touchdown passes are second in the NFL.
Tom Brady's 18 touchdown passes are second in the NFL.Jeff Bottari/Associated Press

Tom Brady forgot what down it was at the end of a loss to the Bears three weeks ago, and Peyton Manning couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bust his friend’s chops.

“In the NFC, when you throw an incompletion on fourth down, you actually have to leave the field,” Manning quipped at the beginning of the latest episode of his ESPN show “Detail.” “You don’t get a fifth down in the NFC. I mean, you can beg for it . . . but they actually, believe it or not, in the NFC make you leave the field. So that was probably the one big adjustment Tom didn’t understand.”

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Otherwise, Brady seems to be adjusting just fine to life in the NFC with the Buccaneers. The Bucs have won four of five games to vault near the top of the conference standings, and Brady has been on fire, throwing an NFL-high 12 touchdowns against just one interception in October. His 110.0 passer rating in October was best in the NFC and fourth best in the NFL. Brady is also being kept clean, with just three sacks in three October games.

Last week, Brady, 43, was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month for October — the 11th time he has won such an award in his career (an NFL record), but the first time a Buc has won Offensive Player of the Month in the franchise’s 46-year history.

His September was a little slow, though the Bucs still went 2-1. But each week Brady is getting more comfortable with his new teammates, working through the rust with Rob Gronkowski, and getting into a groove with his new coaches and playbook. Oh, and Antonio Brown is joining the party soon.

“Tom Brady looks as comfortable as Tiger Woods over a must-make putt,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former 11-year NFL quarterback. “He’s been clean and upright, and when that happens, he looks like he’s 30 years old and in the prime of his career. Still as precise and accurate as ever.”

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Other than the hiccup at Chicago, a 1-point loss in a Thursday road game, Brady and the Bucs were unstoppable in October. They led the NFL with 17 touchdowns, were second at 35 points per game, and three of their past four wins have been by at least three scores.

And Old Man Brady definitely still has it. Brady’s passing yards (273 per game) and passer rating (102.7) are his best since his 2017 MVP season. His completion percentage is up 5 points from last year. Brady’s 18 touchdown passes are second in the NFL behind Russell Wilson (22), and he has crept past Drew Brees for the record for TD passes (559 to 558), though they will surely go back and forth this season.

“He’s the ultimate test as a player. He’s like the final boss in Mario,” said Giants cornerback Logan Ryan, a former Patriots teammate who will face Brady on Monday night. “Like fine wine, he keeps getting better. I love playing against him because it’s the greatest challenge in football.”

What’s most fascinating about Brady’s performance this year are the adjustments being made by both himself and his coaches. Now in his 21st year in the NFL, Brady isn’t afraid to change his fundamentals. In New England, he always received shotgun snaps with his left foot in front of his right. In Tampa Bay, he squares his feet and shoulders to the front.

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“I’m liking the square stance,” Brady said. “I feel like it’s just a more natural, relaxed position — almost like you’re getting ready to field a ground ball . . . Then I don’t have to do much adjustment post-snap — just got to catch the snap, pivot my body, and I feel like I’m in a good position to throw.”

Tom Brady's shotgun stance is square in 2020, as opposed to staggered last year.
Tom Brady's shotgun stance is square in 2020, as opposed to staggered last year.Screenshot

Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said Brady has worked hard with quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen in tweaking mechanics such as his shotgun stance. Brady’s passer rating of 97.0 out of the shotgun is 10 points higher than last year and his highest since a 104.0 in 2017.

“We take our quarterbacks to what I call the ‘driving range’ every day, and they’re working on fundamentals just like every other position for 20 [to] 30 minutes,” Arians said. “You try new things and see how it feels to you rhythm-wise. This one felt pretty good and he’s worked really hard at it.”

Manning also has noticed an adjustment in how the Buccaneers have called plays. In “Detail,” Manning broke down Brady’s performance in a 38-10 win over the Packers two weeks ago, and he pointed out five plays run by the Bucs that were “staple Patriots plays.” On one such play, a goal-line play that Manning used to call “Paydirt,” Brady threw a touchdown to his fifth read, Tyler Johnson.

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“He gets to the fifth read because he knows the play. He’s run it since 2000 when he was drafted,” Manning said. “Why the Bucs weren’t running his plays earlier in the season, I’m not sure.”

While Brady was lights-out in October, his big test will be making it through December and January. His career passer ratings by month: September 97.0, October 101.0, November 98.1, December 92.3.

The big difference this year, though, is the weather. Brady’s December will entail a Week 13 bye, two home games in the Florida sun, and two road games at domed stadiums (Atlanta, Detroit).

“I’m never going back to cold weather. I did 25 years of it,” Brady said on Dax Shepard’s podcast this summer.

And there is no question that Brady and the Bucs are hitting a groove as the calendar flips to November.

“I think we’re improving every week, which has been really fun for me to see,” Brady said. “I just want us to continue to improve. The only thing that really gets me excited is winning games.”

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Kittle got past the Patriots

George Kittle already has 35 catches in five games this season.
George Kittle already has 35 catches in five games this season.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

A common question asked about George Kittle over the past three years: How did every NFL team miss on him? Kittle wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 2017, yet by 2018 he was a Pro Bowler and by 2019 a first-team All-Pro as the best tight end in the NFL. He has the NFL season record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,377), and is an elite blocker in the run game.

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But in listening to Bill Belichick rave about Kittle two weeks ago, then watching Kittle toss Patriots defenders around the field for 60 minutes last Sunday, I have an even more pointed question: How did the Patriots miss on Kittle?

Tight end was a major position of need in 2017 — the depth chart was Rob Gronkowski coming off his third back surgery, plus newcomer Dwayne Allen. Yet they passed on every tight end in the draft, and apparently didn’t think too highly of Kittle. The Patriots drafted Deatrich Wise with the 131st pick at the end of the fourth round, and Kittle went to the 49ers at No. 146 in the fifth.

Kittle didn’t exactly dominate at Iowa, finishing a four-year career with 48 catches for 737 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he wasn’t an unknown prospect, either — Iowa is famous for producing tight ends, and a July 2016 article by Pro Football Focus was headlined, “3 plays that show why Iowa’s George Kittle is best all-around TE in CFB.”

And if anyone has the inside track on Iowa players, it’s Belichick. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was on Belichick’s staff in Cleveland. Brian Ferentz was a Patriots coach from 2009-11, James Ferentz is currently a Patriots backup center, and the Patriots have signed many Iowa players through the years.

In 2020, the Patriots have the worst tight end production in the NFL. But the best one in the league — “as good as anybody that I’ve coached or as good as anybody that we’ve played against,” Belichick said — was right there under their nose. And they whiffed.

“Kittle was really undervalued in a lot of circles from what I recall,” one AFC scout said. “But you’re right, they have a big connection there. That would have been scary to have a Gronk and Kittle overlap.”

ETC.

Thinking should be long term

Trading Stephon Gilmore shouldn't be out of the picture for the Patriots.
Trading Stephon Gilmore shouldn't be out of the picture for the Patriots.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

A few Patriots-related notes:

Bill Belichick was asked Friday if the result of Sunday’s game against the Bills would determine whether the Patriots will be sellers at the trade deadline Tuesday.

“No, I don’t think so,” Belichick replied. “Ultimately, any decision we make would be to do what’s in the best interest of the team.”

Regardless of the outcome, the Patriots have major needs on both sides of the ball and clearly should be thinking long term. If they can get a first-round pick for Stephon Gilmore, they should make the trade even if they win Sunday, because it’s in the best interests of the Patriots as an organization.

Belichick has a history of not taking the team’s current fortunes into account when making deals. In 2016, he shockingly traded Jamie Collins to the Browns even though the Patriots were Super Bowl contenders. The Patriots won the championship anyway.

▪ As good as October was for Tom Brady, it was that bad for the Patriots' quarterbacks. Out of 40 qualifying QBs across the NFL, Brian Hoyer ranked 36th in passer rating (59.4), Cam Newton 39th (43.2), and Jarrett Stidham 40th (39.3). The three combined for a rating of 42.4 — and for context of how bad that is, a quarterback who throws every snap directly into the ground gets a rating of 39.6.

The Patriots led the league with nine interceptions. They averaged an NFL-low 9.3 points per game. They scored two touchdowns and attempted one extra point all month.

Josh Allen played like an MVP candidate in September, came crashing back to reality in October, and faces a major prove-it game Sunday against the Patriots. Belichick has owned Allen in three career matchups, with the Patriots winning all three.

Allen’s numbers in those games: 192.7 passing yards per game, 48.4 completion percentage, three touchdowns, five interceptions, 6.08 yards per attempt, eight sacks and a 56.4 passer rating. Allen has also rushed for 99 yards on 5.8 yards per carry, with one touchdown and one fumble.

Bills coach Sean McDermott is 0-6 against the Patriots, offensive coordinator (and former Patriots coach) Brian Daboll is 0-4, and Allen is 0-3. You know they are frothing at the mouth to finally take down the Patriots.

Losses piling up for Cowboys

Andy Dalton leaving last Sunday's game against Washington was another setback for an already beleaguered Cowboys team.
Andy Dalton leaving last Sunday's game against Washington was another setback for an already beleaguered Cowboys team. Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

No one should feel bad for Jerry Jones, whose Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise on the planet at $5.7 billion, per Forbes. But Jones sure is burning through his money this season.

The 2-5 Cowboys are in fire-sale mode, and are cutting their losses on several free agent signings. They traded Everson Griffen to the Lions after paying him $2.55 million for 2½ sacks in seven games. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe was released this past week, making $3 million for seven tackles and no sacks (plus the Cowboys could be on the hook for another $1.2 million). Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was released at the end of training camp after making $2.25 million. Cornerback Daryl Worley, released this past week, made $1.8 million for 14 tackles in seven games. And defensive tackle Gerald McCoy made $3 million and was released after tearing his quadriceps during the team’s first padded practice in August.

That’s going to end up being nearly $14 million in wasted cash for the Cowboys. And that doesn’t even factor in the toughest pill to swallow, paying $31.4 million for just five games of Dak Prescott, who is out for the season with a broken ankle.

Tannehill has been a surprise

Ryan Tannehill had seven years to prove himself in Miami, and couldn’t do it. He went 42-46 as a starter with just one playoff berth (for which he was injured). He threw a lot of interceptions, took a lot of sacks, and compiled a decidedly average 87.0 passer rating.

All of which is a way of saying that no one — no one — could have seen this coming with the Titans. Tannehill has now started 16 games for Tennessee, and here are his numbers:

A 12-4 regular-season record, two playoff wins, 4,188 passing yards, 69.1 completion percentage, 8.9 yards per attempt, 37 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and 34 sacks. Also, 263 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

Tannehill’s 116.5 passer rating would be the fourth-best season rating in NFL history. By comparison, Brady’s rating in his 2007 MVP season was 117.2.

“So thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this organization, part of this team,” Tannehill said.

Extra points

Congrats to Washington coach Ron Rivera for finishing his cancer treatment this past week following his diagnosis this summer for squamous cell carcinoma. And congrats to Rivera for finding some positives out of his situation. Washington raised $30,000 for the American Cancer Society by selling cardboard fan cutouts in the stadium, and Rivera has become an advocate for affordable healthcare. “I want to be connected in the right way and since we’re so close to Capitol Hill, maybe I can add a voice and help our folks,” he said on SiriusXM . . . This marked the second straight week that a team had to send its entire offensive line home for quarantining — the Raiders, followed by the Giants this past week (coincidentally, both preparing to play Brady and the Buccaneers). The NFL instituted new policies Friday that encourage teams to further space out their sidelines and encourage players to wear face coverings on sidelines. But perhaps it is time to create special social-distancing measures for offensive linemen, since there are so many of them, and they spend a lot of time in close contact with each other . . . The Texans are getting great quarterback play, but it’s not computing. Deshaun Watson led the NFL with 1,303 yards and 9.05 yards per attempt in October, completed 70.8 percent of his passes, threw 11 touchdown passes, and compiled a 118.5 passer rating, but the Texans went 1-3 . . . Myles Garrett has 39½ sacks in 44 games, and could become just the fifth player in NFL history with 40 sacks in 45 games. The others are Reggie White (57), Aldon Smith (44), Derrick Thomas (43.5), and Von Miller (41) . . . Tua Tagovailoa will become the 22nd quarterback to start a game for the Dolphins since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. He joins an illustrious list that includes Joey Harrington, Gus Frerotte, Sage Rosenfels, Damon Huard, A.J. Feeley, Cleo Lemon, John Beck, Jay Cutler, and Brock Osweiler. The Dolphins' 79.9 passer rating from 2000-20 ranks 25th out of 32 teams. But none of them were drafted with the fifth overall pick, and the excitement in Miami is palpable. “It’s going to be incredible,” defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “He is going to lead his team in the right way.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.