FOXBOROUGH — Ahead of the season opener, Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers was asked to recall his thoughts from when he first saw the Miami Dolphins scheduled for Week 1.
Meyers called the game “an exciting opportunity,” mentioning how he has family from Florida. But then he committed a cardinal sin in the eyes of the Patriots: He looked ahead. And he didn’t look ahead to just any game. Meyers briefly shifted his focus to Week 4, the highly anticipated return of former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to Gillette Stadium.
“You know you got Tom Brady coming back,” Meyers said, before quickly course-correcting.
“I don’t want to look too far down the road. There’s just a lot of big moments in the season. I know I have to focus on everything that’s in front of me, but definitely a lot to look forward to.”
How could you blame Meyers for letting it slip that he already had eyes on Week 4? Who didn’t?
Now, the game is finally here. Brady and the 2-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be visiting Gillette Stadium Sunday night for one of the most hyped matchups in all of sports.
In the final moments of Tampa Bay’s 34-24 loss to the Los Angeles Rams Sunday afternoon, the Fox broadcast crew previewed the game, stating what’s likely on the minds of many.
“That’s one I’ll be tuned into,” said color commentator Troy Aikman.
“Oh yeah, the whole league will be,” replied play-by-play announcer Joe Buck.
The Buccaneers open as 5½-point favorites, according to BetOnline, but that line seems conservative given New England’s ugly display against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3.
With right tackle Trent Brown still sidelined with a calf injury, the offensive line once again struggled to protect rookie Mac Jones, allowing 11 quarterback hits and two sacks. Even if Brown returns, Tampa Bay’s formidable front seven features talented pass rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, and Devin White — a group that has blitzed a league-high 50 times this season.
Making matters worse, New England’s best pass-blocking running back, James White, suffered a hip injury in the second quarter against the Saints and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. His status moving forward is unknown.
Jones finished as the team’s leading rusher, with 28 yards, as the Patriots amassed only 49 yards on the ground. He logged a quarterback rating of 55.2 and threw three interceptions, including a pick-6 that was the result of tight end Jonnu Smith bobbling a catchable ball.
As for other low points from the game? When the Patriots decided to go for it on fourth down at New Orleans’s 22-yard line at the end of the first half, tight end Hunter Henry jumped over the line of scrimmage early. His false start prompted the team to settle for a field goal. Later, when New Orleans’s Taysom Hill rushed for a 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, sealing the victory, the Patriots had only 10 defenders on the field.
If they can’t clean up these types of mistakes, the Patriots could be in for a rude awakening against the reigning Super Bowl champions, who were already expected to present quite the challenge.
Through three weeks, the Buccaneers are averaging 34.3 points per game. The Patriots are averaging about half that, with 18. Tampa Bay ranks first in the NFL in passing touchdowns (10), second in passing yards (1,203), and seventh in total yards (1,218). New England ranks 29th, 18th, and 20th in those categories.
“They have a really good team,” Belichick said Monday morning. “They have a very good offensive line, a lot of experience at the running back, receiver, and tight end positions, a lot of depth there. It’s a very talented offensive football team, very talented defensive football team.”
As Sunday night nears, the buzz surrounding the game is only going to grow — even though Belichick, Brady, and others involved may do their best to downplay the circumstances.
After Tampa Bay’s loss to the Rams, Brady didn’t get into specifics when asked how he plans to approach the homecoming.
“I’ll just get through the plane and evaluate what we need to do to put ourselves in a better position to win from a quarterback standpoint,” he said. “I want to win every time I take the field.”
Bucs coach Bruce Arians, too, kept his answer short.
“We knew when we got the schedule this was going to be a tough two weeks in a row,” Arians said. “[Foxborough] is a great place to go play. Obviously, we’ll have a ton of attention.”
That they will.
During the Packers-49ers Sunday night game, NBC aired multiple promos for Patriots-Bucs. One featured clips of Brady and Belichick from their time together and their time apart, with Adele singing a very fitting line, “Hello from the other side.” The other also included an apt lyric — “a storm is coming that you can’t escape” — with imagery of dark storm clouds.
NBC analyst Tony Dungy, who had to make a return to Tampa Bay after becoming head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, believes the buildup is justified.
“I promise you it’s going to be emotional,” said Dungy. “It’s not just another game.”