FOXBOROUGH — The cameras followed them from the moment the game ended, wondering when, where, and how their post-game embrace would go. With Tom Brady surviving his Foxboro return Sunday night by the slimmest of margins, heading back to Tampa Bay with a 19-17 victory over the Patriots in his pocket, he found the man he was looking for, leaned in, shared a hug and then some words.
“He just told me to keep my head up and keep working,” Mac Jones recalled. “I just got a chance to congratulate him on the win. He’s a great quarterback, he played well tonight.”
All week long, as the drums pounded and the hype train revved for this epic Sunday night football game, Jones was cast as a supporting player, the present and future Patriot pushed aside for one more night of remembering the best of the Patriots past.
The script coming in? All Brady and all Bill Belichick, this highly anticipated clash of football titans, these former partners turned rivals ready for their mano-a-mano fight. Given their history, their two-decade championship-filled partnership and their not-quite acrimonious but not-quite-amicable split, the Sunday night reunion arranged by NFL schedulers was rife with pre-written drama. Even the weather gods played along, the falling rain and swirling fog settling over Gillette to set just the right backdrop for the drama about to unfold.
But there was always another character in this play, and Jones played the role of spoiler so, so well. Almost to perfection, actually, but for a final Nick Folk field goal attempt bouncing off the upright and down to the turf, a miss that ended Folk’s personal record streak at 36 straight, and ended this game with a series of oh-so-familiar Brady kneel-downs. Maybe Brady would have driven for a victory anyway, with almost a minute left on the clock when Folk attempted his 56-yard kick. No doubt, there has never been anyone better at staging such late-game heroics here in New England.
But Jones threw quite an impressive hat into the ring Sunday night, standing up to the spotlight of this nationally televised game, standing tall in the shadow of the man who accomplished so much in the uniform that he now wears, standing strong amid another night of bruising hits and pressured throws.
“He keeps showing he’s got some guts,” center David Andrews said. “An honor to get to play with a guy like that. We’ve just got to find a way to win a football game. He battles. He’s a tough kid.”
Three different times Jones trotted into his huddle staring down a deficit, and three different times he drove the Patriots to a lead. That the last one didn’t end up doing the same does not diminish the value of the earlier work, work that underscores that Jones may indeed be in possession of the type of internal competitive streak combined with competitive poise that made Brady excel for the two decades here.
“I thought our team played competitively and Mac is certainly part of that — we can all play better and learn from what we could have done better,” Belichick said. “Mac fought hard and made a lot plays for us.”
Start with the first comeback drive in the second quarter, which began after the Bucs took a 3-0 lead. It didn’t start well, with a holding penalty putting the offense in a first-and-20 hole, but with a 16-yard completion to Kendrick Bourne followed by a 15-yarder to Jakobi Meyers, Jones was on his way.
Another hold by the home team meant another second-and-20 in the same drive, but again, Jones connected with Bourne for 16 yards, found Brandon Bolden for 7, and eventually, tight end Hunter Henry for 11 and a touchdown. The 11-play, 74-yard drive took 6:21 off the clock, valuable time that did double duty in keeping Brady pinned to his sideline. And though Brady would take advantage by coming out to lead another scoring drive before halftime, a little help from a defense that kept it to a field goal meant Jones headed into halftime with a 1-point lead on his vaunted predecessor.
Brady eventually erased that, cashing in on a weird second-chance possession when a rare unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Matthew Slater negated an apparent fumble and turnover on a Bucs punt. Slater was flagged for running out of bounds and not returning immediately to the field before making a tackle, in this case, the tackle that caused the fumble. The Bucs retained possession and eventually answered with a touchdown, taking a 13-7 lead with 3:48 left in the quarter.
But in came Jones, and off went the fireworks, the second mini-comeback of the night. Between the smart mix of play calls by Josh McDaniels, calls that included a lot of play action and not a lot of huddling up (not to mention two completed passes on trick plays by Meyers), Jones hit all seven of his passes on the drive. Twenty-one yards to Damien Harris. Thirteen yards to Agholor. Five yards to Meyers. Another 10 to Harris. Twelve yards to Jonnu Smith. Fifteen more to Bolden, who was brought down at the 1 after an impressive yards-after-the-catch effort.
Finally, with a beautiful play action fake and a perfect throw over the middle, touchdown to Smith. The Pats led, 14-13.
From there the field goal tradeoff started. The Bucs went up, 16-14, and Jones led his own 3-point answer for a 17-16 lead. When the drive finally stalled with two straight incompletions, he’d completed 19 consecutive passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. The 19 straight completions just happened to match the career Patriot high of a guy named Brady.
Jones was 31 for 40 for 275 yards and two touchdowns.
The same guy who made sure to meet his counterpart when the game was over Sunday night, seeking Jones out not long after he’d done the same with Belichick. The former QB and his old coach were the story coming in. Mac Jones made sure he was a big part of the story coming out.
“He’s one of the guys now,” veteran Devin McCourty said. “We don’t see him as a rookie.”
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