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Tom Brady has raised the stakes, and Bill Belichick must respond quickly

Bill Belichick is the target of some critics now that the quarterback who left town on him has brought his new team to the Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick is the target of some critics now that the quarterback who left town on him has brought his new team to the Super Bowl.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Your move, Patriots.

The Packers may have lost Sunday’s NFC Championship game to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, but it’s Bill Belichick and the Patriots taking the beating.

The pundits were not kind to the Patriots, specifically Belichick. While Brady cemented his greatness Sunday, Belichick and Robert Kraft took plenty of heat for either letting Brady leave New England, or making life so miserable that he wanted out.

“Bill Belichick the GM looks incredibly, incredibly bad,” Stephen A. Smith said Monday on ESPN’s “First Take.”

“Nobody wanted to go to New England to be coached by Bill Belichick,” former Jets and Bills coach Rex Ryan said on ESPN. “They wanted to play with Tom Brady.”

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“He’s old, he’s the underdog, he showed up Belichick — how can’t you root for Tom Brady this Super Bowl?” read the headline on one of my favorite columnists, Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Belichick got shown up Sunday, all right. Now the pressure is on for him to fire back.

Brady didn’t just reinforce his own legend by taking his new team to the Super Bowl at age 43. He raised the stakes immeasurably for Belichick and the Patriots, who sputtered along at 7-9 in their first season without Brady.

Belichick and the Patriots simply can’t afford another repeat of 2020. They have to get back on track, and fast.

Think Belichick isn’t feeling the heat? His girlfriend, Linda Holliday, firing back at a fan last week on her now-private Instagram account suggests Belichick knows he still has something to prove in a post-Brady world.

Going 7-9 and piecing together the quarterback position with Scotch tape won’t fly again in 2021. Belichick has to answer back, forcefully. He has to remind the world know that he, too, is the greatest of all time, just like Brady.

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Belichick gets a reprieve for the 2020 season, his first bad year in two decades. But he can’t afford another sub-.500 year, or another season in which he can’t find a quarterback.

Bill Belichick and the Patriots finished 7-9 this past season.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots finished 7-9 this past season.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

No matter how much you respect Belichick and the dynasty he built with the Patriots, Brady has now planted the seed of doubt. Maybe it really was Brady’s greatness that carried the Patriots to six Super Bowl titles and 13 AFC Championship games in 18 healthy seasons. Maybe Belichick only looked like a genius because he had the greatest quarterback of all-time pulling the strings on the field.

I don’t fully believe those statements, but seeing Brady carry the Bucs to a Super Bowl sows some doubt.

It means that Belichick and the Patriots have to make a splash this offseason. They have to build the Patriots back into a winner. Now.

Belichick has been in this back-against-the-wall position before, and it worked out well. In 2007, coming off a squandered 2006 season in which Brady didn’t have much help on offense, Belichick traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker and signed Donté Stallworth, creating an offensive juggernaut and a 16-0 team. Belichick also signed linebacker Adalius Thomas to a massive free agent contract, though that move didn’t work out as well.

Belichick needs to act with similar urgency this offseason. He can’t afford to sit out free agency as he did last year, or to trade out of the first round of the draft so he can take a safety from Rutgers. He can’t afford to go into the season with a broken-down Cam Newton making league minimum as his starting quarterback.

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Fortunately for Belichick, the Patriots are set up well to make a splash. They are projected to have the fourth-most salary-cap space in the NFL. They also have a couple of decent draft picks at Nos. 15 and 46.

Want to get the fans and pundits back on your side? Go trade for Aaron Rodgers. The Packers legend opened the door for his departure after Sunday’s loss, saying there are “a lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain — myself included.”

Rodgers is under contract for three more years with the Packers, at $22 million this year and $25.5 million in 2022 and 2023. The Packers have no intention of trading Rodgers, but the quarterback calls the shots.

Or go trade for the disgruntled Deshaun Watson, who may work his way out of Houston this offseason. Watson has a full no-trade clause, but is owed only $10.5 million next year, followed by $35 million and $37 million. Belichick would be crowned king of New England if he pulled that off.

Could the Patriots make a play for Deshaun Watson?
Could the Patriots make a play for Deshaun Watson?Matthew J. Lee/Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Matthew Stafford would generate considerable buzz. The Colts seem like the most obvious suitor, but Stafford would be a significant upgrade for the Patriots over Newton (whether Stafford would want to team up again with Matt Patricia is another story).

Trading for Jimmy Garoppolo would be another bold, popular move.

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Or if free agency isn’t his bag, Belichick needs to make a play for one of the big quarterbacks in the draft. Trevor Lawrence is out of the question, but Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, and Kyle Trask could all be in the mix, if Belichick is willing to pay the price. Patriots fans probably would feel a lot better about the direction of the team with a young, highly drafted quarterback in the fold.

Belichick can’t stop at quarterback, either. The Patriots had the worst receiver and tight end situation in the NFL the last two years, which is partially why Brady left.

Want to make a splash? Give a big free agent contract to Chris Godwin, Brady’s favorite target in Tampa Bay. Allen Robinson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kenny Golladay, Curtis Samuel, and Corey Davis also would get the fans excited again.

At tight end, signing Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith would be considered “wow” moves. Same with signing a Leonard Williams or Jadeveon Clowney to the defense.

Belichick has to do something to counteract Brady, who has now won over even his biggest detractors.

“Brady has had a full Hall of Fame career in the time since I made the cliff prediction,” ESPN’s Max Kellerman said. “He proved everything. This was a legacy game.”

Brady also upped the ante for Belichick and the Patriots. They’d better go all-in this offseason.


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