The showdown taking place Sunday night at Gillette Stadium could have been created by Marvel Comics.
Two superheroes, taking on the world in a fight for justice and the Patriot Way, have a bitter split and become archenemies. They finally square off in the ultimate showdown, on the same turf where they fought alongside each other for 20 years.
No longer is it Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Now, finally, we get Tom Brady versus Bill Belichick, in what will be Brady’s 350th NFL game (including playoffs).
“This is as good as it gets,” said NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, who will be calling Sunday night’s game alongside Al Michaels. “They know each other inside out. And which path are they choosing to attack the other? I can’t imagine there’s a better story, if you just love football, than simply that.”
Neither participant wants to be psyched out by the other. Brady and Belichick have made clear that they know what to expect from the other guy.
“I know what this team’s all about,” Brady said on his podcast this past week. “I’ve sat in that meeting room, I’ve heard the scouting reports. I know exactly what they’re going to attempt to do to us.”
Belichick responded in kind on Wednesday.
“It’s the offense he’s run his whole career,” Belichick said of the Buccaneers. “I mean, you could call almost every play from the flare control to the protection, you know, similar to the way we do it.”
Of all the angles surrounding Brady’s return to Gillette Stadium as the visiting quarterback, the X’s and O’s have to rank as one of the most fascinating.
For 20 years Brady and Belichick worked together on the practice field; met twice a week to discuss game plans; and won 249 games together, including six Super Bowls.
We know how Belichick would defend Peyton Manning. We know how he would defend Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.
Now we will finally see how Belichick will defend Brady.
“We know Coach Belichick’s record against rookie quarterbacks and young quarterbacks,” said former Colts coach Tony Dungy, now with NBC. “I don’t know what his record is against 44-year-old quarterbacks with this kind of experience.”
One problem with this matchup is it’s not quite a fair fight. The 2-1 Buccaneers are loaded on offense, leading the NFL at 34.3 points per game and having four receivers on pace for 1,000-yard seasons. The 1-2 Patriots are scuffling with a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, and a team that is committing far too many mistakes in all three phases.
“To me, they’re outmatched in this game personnel-wise,” NBC’s Drew Brees said of the Patriots. “They’re going to have to pull out all the stops to beat them.”
From Brady’s perspective, he may use an up-tempo attack early in the game, just to see what Belichick is going to throw at him.
“Tom’s going to use tempo — come out and show a formation and say ‘OK, what’s the defense in?’ ” said former Patriot Tedy Bruschi, now with ESPN. “Process all of the information, and put it all together with his two decades of individual meetings with Bill, and how he plays offenses. Then once he gets it all figured out, he’ll choose what to run.”
Dungy believes a hurry-up offense will allow Brady to hear what the Patriots want to do on defense.
“I would go hurry-up and make them make their defensive calls on the field,” Dungy said. “I know [Brady’s] heard every call. He understands what they’re doing.”
From Belichick’s side, his general philosophy has always been to take away a team’s top weapons and make it beat you with its third and fourth options.
The problem with the Buccaneers is their third and fourth guys are still Pro Bowlers. The Bucs really have four No. 1 options between Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski.
“It’s going to be really hard to handle all those guys,” Brees said.
Belichick probably shouldn’t blitz Brady, who is completing 72 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, one interception, and a sparkling 119.1 passer rating this year against the blitz.
“I don’t see blitzing as the answer,” said former quarterback Boomer Esiason, now with CBS’s “The NFL Today.” “I don’t want to see one-on-ones if I’m Bill Belichick.”
Former 17-year NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said Brady has been getting rid of the ball so quickly, “even unblocked blitzers aren’t getting hits on him.”
“It’s easy to say blitz, but you’re putting less than seven into coverage, and I don’t like that idea,” said Hasselbeck, now with ESPN.
Getting pressure on Brady will be important, of course. The Patriots just need to do it with twists and stunts by the four defensive linemen instead of sending extra rushers.
“It’s shown in the past, if you can hit him, if you can make him uncomfortable, you can rattle him,” said NBC’s Rodney Harrison, a former Patriot. “You have to play very physical. Not just with Tom but with his receivers as well. You’ve got to jam them up and kind of slow them down and disrupt them.”
And it has to be pressure up the middle, not from the edge.
“It doesn’t do any good to go flying around the ends because he’s going to step up,” Esiason said. “You have to muck the pocket up from the middle.”
Just as important as getting in Brady’s face is disrupting the timing of his receivers. Don’t be surprised to see a Matthew Judon or Chase Winovich try to slam into a receiver at the snap instead of going straight for the quarterback.
“I remember when guys like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich used to do that,” Hasselbeck said. “If the timing is all off, then Brady is holding the ball.”
Belichick may also want to use a tactic he utilized often against Manning — play back and beg him to hand off to the running back or check down.
“The old saying Bill would say in the meetings would be, ‘One handoff to Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones is one less throw by Tom Brady,’” Bruschi said. “I’d rather have Fournette and Jones beat me than Brady throwing to Gronk multiple times in the red area for a touchdown. What that also does is the clock is running when they run the football.”
If Brady is patient enough to keep handing the ball off and settling for checkdowns, then more power to him.
“If you can go 85 yards in 12 plays, God bless you,” Esiason said. “You’ve got to be extremely patient, and let Tom take the dinks and dunks all night. I don’t want to give up the big play.”
And maybe, if the Patriots are lucky, Brady loses his patience and throws a ball into coverage when he shouldn’t.
“I can just see Gronk and Tom having a conversation of, ‘Let’s put on a show and let’s show them what we can still do,’ ” Bruschi said. “Do you want to throw it so bad, and you want to prove it so bad, are you going to throw into an eight-man coverage? That definitely could be part of the plan.”
Finally, the Patriots probably have to play a perfect game. No more false starts or blocked punts or bobbled passes that turn into pick-6s.
“Instead of trying to create something that fools Tom Brady, it’s how do you play mistake-free football that doesn’t lose you the game?” said Ninkovich, now with ESPN. “You don’t trick Tom. You just go play football and you hope that for four quarters, nobody makes a mistake.”
Still, as much as Belichick knows about Brady, he can’t affect the game like Brady can.
“I’m telling you, Peyton Manning would feel like he had the advantage playing against me and the Colts defense,” Dungy said. “And I’ll tell you, Tom Brady feels like he has the advantage having practiced against that [Patriots] defense. But we’ll see how it plays out.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.