- Ian O’Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of four books, including The New York Times bestseller “Belichick.” Follow Ian on Twitter »
Before his big family trip from New England to Tampa, Tom Brady boxed and wrapped his gear, his footballs, his six Super Bowl rings, everything except the AFC East. What a shame that he could not bring his favorite division with him.
Did you see Brady’s first 85-yard drive and two-yard touchdown plunge of the rest of his life Sunday?
How many times do you think an AFC East team would have effectively folded on command right there, and resigned itself to a long day at the office while Brady built another monument to himself at that team’s expense?
But the New Orleans Saints are not the New York Jets, or the Miami Dolphins, or even the Buffalo Bills, who might actually be strong enough this year to win a playoff game for the first time in more than a quarter century. The Saints are not just a team; they’re a program. Not the New England Patriots’ kind of program, but a program nonetheless.
Brady hadn’t faced one of those since he was playing in the Big Ten. Inside the Superdome on Sunday, right after Bill Belichick opened the final phase of his own career — with Cam Newton at quarterback — by beating Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins, Brady tried and failed to beat Drew Brees, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team advertised as having a lot more firepower than Brady had last year in New England.
Painful as the 34-23 final score might have been to Brady, especially after Belichick started 1-0 and had all sorts of praise for Newton (two rushing touchdowns) afterward, it should not come as much of a surprise. Brees and Sean Payton won 13 games together each of the past two seasons. They have won six NFC South titles as a partnership, including the past three, and they have won 11 or more games in seven seasons.
This was always a part of the Brady gamble that never made much sense. And it’s why in the very last question he fielded as a Patriot last January, after his playoff loss to the Titans, I asked Brady why he would walk away from a division that he had won 11 straight times and that still provided him the clearest path back to the Super Bowl.
Brady gave a lengthy non-answer that included this benign observation through a thin smile: “I’ve loved playing for this team for two decades and winning a lot of games. And again, I don’t know what it looks like moving forward, so we’ll just take it day by day.” The quarterback thanked reporters, bent over to pick up his bag, and disappeared after hugging teammate Devin McCourty and whispering to him, “See you tomorrow.”
There would be no tomorrow in Foxborough, Massachusetts — not after Brady decided, in the words of a source close to him, that he was “Belichick’d out” after 20 years. A separate source said after the 2017 season that Brady wanted to divorce Belichick. It just took him another two years to file the paperwork.
And that’s fine. Brady and Belichick decided they preferred new challenges, and we all should have spent more time marveling over the fact their marriage lasted 20 years, despite the high-stakes stress, and less time wondering why they didn’t make it to 21.
Brady could make the case to himself that, at 43, he’d earned a break from Belichick’s 24/7, 365-day-a-year intensity, and that Bruce Arians’ lighter, funny man’s touch and history with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer made him the perfect antidote, even if Arians had one postseason victory to his name as a head coach, 30 fewer than Belichick.
But assuming Brady’s chief goal remains a seventh championship, a mountain even Michael Jordan didn’t climb, his jump into a divisional cage match with the Saints was hard to understand. It got harder to understand Sunday, after Brady threw two ghastly interceptions, the first one on a ball that sailed over Mike Evans’ head, the second on a pass to the sideline way behind Justin Watson and intercepted by Janoris Jenkins, who ran it back for a touchdown that put New Orleans ahead by three scores.
Arians on the first interception: “Mike read it right.”
Arians on the second interception: “Bad decision.”
Arians on the checks Brady called at the line: “Some were good, some weren’t.”
So much for that lighter, funny man’s touch.
If Brady was aware of his new coach’s assessment, and felt blitzed by it, he didn’t let on in his postgame video news conference. “They were bad throws,” Brady conceded of his interceptions. He said more than once that he needed “to do a lot better job.” Of the hype surrounding the Bucs’ all-star cast, Brady said, “It doesn’t matter how much talent you have if you throw an interception returned for a touchdown. I’ve got to correct that.”
This wasn’t what Brady was hoping for when, on arrival, he walked across the Superdome field wearing dark shades and a creamsicle-colored shirt carrying the message “TB X TB, Season One, 2020, LFG.” He looked like a young dad happy he no longer had to wear a jacket and tie and overcoat to work.
This opener might have come easier to Brady had Belichick and Newton bombed in their opening act. Instead, Newton threw the ball efficiently against Miami, accounted for those two scores, and ran for more yards (75) than any Patriots quarterback since 1977, the year Brady was born.
“Cam’s been great for us. … He’s a very, very unselfish player,” Belichick said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s earned everybody’s respect, really, daily. He just continues to do everything that he can to help our team and that’s really all you can ask from anyone, and he continually does that, puts himself last and puts the team first. So, I think he’s done a tremendous job there …” And on and on.
Brady’s family members and friends had long tired of Belichick’s refusal to gush over his franchise player, who won a conference title game against Jacksonville with a mangled passing hand a few years ago, only to have Belichick minimize the surreal effort by saying, “We’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”
At the start of free agency, some people inside the Patriots organization wanted Belichick to temporarily drop the tough-guy act and throw Brady some love, if only in a private conversation, to try to win him back. That was never happening. Brady made his choice, and there he was six months later, wearing the Bucs’ colors in the Superdome, looking as weird as Jordan looked in the Washington Wizards’ colors on the night of his grand 2001 reopening inside Madison Square Garden.
Tampa Bay played like a team of marquee names just slapped together, and Brady and his old friend Rob Gronkowski made like a couple of lost tourists who had wandered over from Bourbon Street. Arians said the fan-free setting — forced by the coronavirus pandemic — created a playing environment with absolutely no energy, and his quarterback agreed, saying the game felt like a scrimmage.
But of course, this scrimmage counted. The record will show that Brady became the oldest man to score a touchdown in the NFL, and that, including the postseason, he has now played more games (327) than any quarterback in league history. It will also show that Brady lost this duel between the NFL’s most prolific passers ever, the league’s first duel between 40-something starters.
Yes, Brady needed a full offseason and preseason with his new receivers before this game. But more than that, perhaps he needed the kind of divisional-opening opponent he made a living on in New England. Brady won the AFC East, and earned a wild-card round bye, during all nine of his Super Bowl seasons. His Patriots had to play in the wild-card round four times, and only once did they even make it to the conference championship game.
The revised playoff format devalues the No. 2 seed, as it awards a bye only to the No. 1 seed. The system has made the road tougher, and Brady has never faced a Super Bowl-winning coach like Sean Payton in his division. He has never faced a Super Bowl-winning quarterback like Drew Brees in his division. (Brett Favre played for the Jets in 2008, but Brady was out virtually the entire season.)
Tom Brady might recover from this loss, go 13-3, and win his seventh ring. It’s just that Sunday gave him a cruel reminder it would have been easier to pull off in the AFC East.
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