Bill Russell never came back to the parquet floor to play against Red Auerbach. Bobby Orr never skated on Boston Garden ice against the Bruins.
But Tom Brady returned to Gillette Stadium as quarterback of the World Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday and beat his sideline Svengali, Bill Belichick, 19-17, in a rain-soaked, wildly entertaining football game that was not decided until Nick Folk’s 56-yard field goal attempt doinked off the left upright with less than a minute to play.
It was at once biblical, amazing, weird, and somewhat unnatural. Seeing Brady beat the Patriots was like seeing Paul McCartney and Wings playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Brady was a pedestrian 22 of 43 passing for 269 yards and no touchdown passes.
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones (31 of 40 passing, 275 yards, two TD passes) did a reasonable impersonation of Brady, circa 2001-02, completing 19 straight passes in one stretch, but could not beat GOAT Tom at the finish.
“What a great game,’’ Brady told NBC’s Michele Tafoya when it was over. “They got a really good football team. It was really great to get a win. Just an amazing night for us to have a win . . . I’m not tearing up. I already went through that.’’
The Pats executed a nice game plan, using rain as a 12th man, and led for much of the night as an emotional Brady had accuracy issues. New England led, 7-6, at halftime and kept the lead until late in the third period when Tampa took a 13-7 lead on a short run by Ronald Jones.
After the score, Jones took the Patriots 77 yards and put New England back in the lead with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith on the first play of the final quarter. The Pats led, 14-13. Jones was 7 for 7 on the drive.
Brady answered with a long drive, but again stalled in the red zone. A chip-shot field goal put Tampa back in the lead, 16-14 with 7:58 left.
Jones’s turn. The kid extended his streak of consecutive complete passes to 19 and took the Patriots back into the red zone, setting up a 27-yard field goal by Folk to give the Pats a 17-16 lead with 4:34 left.
It was simply too much time to give 44-year-old Tom Brady. Brady took the Bucs back into scoring range and Ryan Succop’s 48-yard field goal gave the visitors a 19-17 lead with 1:57 left.
The Patriots surged back across midfield but stalled and Folk could not make the long kick. Folk had made 36 straight before the long miss.
In the first quarter, Brady became the NFL career passing leader (vaulting over Drew Brees, who was in the house as an NBC reporter), when he connected on a 28-yard pass to Mike Evans. Imagine Babe Ruth hitting his 60th homer at Fenway in the autumn of 1927. The Pats noted the historic moment with a scripted message on the big scoreboard behind the end zone, but Brady declined to celebrate the milestone.
“I’ve just been blessed for 22 years to be with some amazing people,’’ Brady said. “I can throw it a little bit and I’m glad I’ve got so many amazing guys that can catch it.’’
The night was historic. From start to finish.
Just around dinner time Bob Kraft, trailed by his camera crew, chatting with Bucs running back Leonard Fournette near the 50-yard line, near the Patriots bench. It was pretty clear Kraft was waiting to document his reunion with Brady, a player Kraft treated like a fifth son most of the time he was in New England.
The moment never materialized at midfield. Brady typically walks onto the field hours before warm-ups, but not on this night. TB12 reportedly sent word that he would meet Kraft in the underbelly of Gillette Stadium so Kraft and his crew slinked off the field to the end zone tunnel and found Brady in a corridor near the locker rooms. Brady was chatting with Brees when Kraft and his crew approached. An audio boom hovered over Kraft’s head at all times.
Kraft said hello and embraced Brady as the exchange was recorded for posterity.
How to measure the pregame level of excitement in, and around, Gillette?
“It was like an AFC Championship,’’ said former Patriots quarterback and radio color broadcaster, Scott Zolak. “It was like the Colts coming in to get spanked.’’
Patriot yahoos and Brady cultists filled Gillette’s parking lots plenty early. Hundreds (thousands?) wore Patriot/Brady No. 12 jerseys. This was Brady’s first appearance in Foxborough since January of 2020 when he threw a pick-6 at the end of a playoff loss to the Titans.
But he has never been far from the New England Mind.
Showered with overwhelming cheers, Brady led his team on to the field just after 7:30 and ran the length of the field (his signature entrance when he played here) toward a pack of admirers in the lighthouse corner of the end zone. He finished with the fist bump as fans chanted, “Brady! Brady!’’ He had a huge hug for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“That was pretty cool,’’ Brady said. “This has been my home for 20 years. I have the best memories. My kids were born here. It’s a great town. It’s a great area.’’
There was much signage at Gillette. Tom as the GOAT. Tom as Jesus. After the Bucs went back to their locker room, the Patriots presented a video presentation that was heavy on Lombardi trophies, confetti, 28-3, and Kraft-Brady hugs (two). The clip featured only one shot of Belichick (shaking Tom’s hand as Brady came off the field).
Brady’s parents were on hand for “Tommy’s” return. It was 60 degrees and raining when the Buccaneers kicked off after winning the coin toss. After the Pats were forced to punt on their first series, Brady took the field and the crowd booed.
The lovefest was over. The gloves were off. Patriot fans had paid their respect to the greatest quarterback of all time. It was time to root, root, root for the home team again. Patriot love conquered Brady love.
“Yeah, they cheered for me a little bit,’’ said Brady. “But at the end they were cheering for their team.’’
Belichick and Brady embraced briefly at midfield when it was over.
Brady is on to history.
The Patriots are 1-3 with three Gillette losses and the Hoodie is on to Houston.
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