FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If they came to see vintage Tom Brady, that’s not what the much-anticipated return to Gillette Stadium turned out to be.
Except at the end.
Brady, dogged by misfires and unfinished drives throughout the game, showed the old faithful that for good measure he can still lead his team to a game-winning drive in crunchtime.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers survived a major scare – and Brady a major embarrassment – by pulling out a 19-17 victory against the New England Patriots on a rain-soaked Sunday night.
What blowout? Projections that Brady might hang 50 on his former teammates in his return to his old stomping grounds proved to be way off-base.
Instead, Bill Belichick & Co. made TB12 sweat. Majorly.
The outcome wasn’t decided until Nick Folk missed a 56-yard field goal attempt that hit the left upright with 55 seconds remaining. The Bucs (3-1) took their final lead on Ryan Succop’s 48-yard field goal with 1:57 on the clock, capping a 7-play, 45-yard drive.
“They did a good job,” Brady said during his postgame news conference. “It was a tough game. Hard-fought game. We ran the ball well. Moved it. We just didn’t get it in the red zone. Had a few costly, drive-killing kind of mistakes that limited us getting…really scoring touchdowns would’ve been a lot different. But just proud of our team. Tough weather. You know, just very typical day. We had to grind it out.”
It was fitting that “Patriot Weather” showed up for Brady’s return, with the steady rain showers that persisted throughout the game playing a factor and adding to the ambiance.
As expected, the crowd – with thousands clad in No. 12 Patriots jerseys and many others showing homemade signs – heartily paid homage to Brady. They chanted “Bra-dy! Bra-dy!” when he came out of the tunnel for pregame warmups, then roared again when he sprinted back onto the field before kickoff. They gave him a standing ovation in the first quarter, too, when he set the NFL’s record for all-time passing yards.
Yes, there were emotions all over the place as you knew they would.
Yet even the man of the hour himself wasn’t sure how it would play out. For as many big games that Brady has experienced during his illustrious career, this was new territory.
“I tried not to predict what was going to happen and how I would feel,” Brady said. “Had a few emotional in the moments this week just thinking about the people that have really meant so much to me in my life and that are a part of this community. Just very grateful for an amazing time here. Like I said, my football journey took me somewhere else, but I’m really enjoying that, and great to get a win.”
It’s fair to wonder whether emotions and nerves played a role in the fact that Brady had his least-efficient game of the season when facing a Belichick-designed defense. Brady completed 22 of 43 passes for a season-low 269 yards. His passer rating of 70.8 was also his worst of the season. And for the first time this year and just the second time since he joined the Bucs, Brady didn’t throw for a touchdown.
Hmmm. It was a great time for the Bucs to finally find the semblance of a running game for the first time all season, with Leonard Fournette (20 rushes, 91 yards) leading the way to the team’s 119 yards on the ground. They needed it on a night when Brady wasn’t as sharp as usual.
Belichick, as you’d also expect, grumbled when asked whether there were advantages gained from his familiarity with Brady over 20 years.
“Look, we went against Tom Brady every day, every day in practice defensively,” Belichick said. “So, it’s not like we’ve ever seen Tom Brady before.”
The Patriots sacked Brady just once but kept him off-balanced on several key plays with well-timed blitzes. For instance, on a third-and-goal from the 8 midway through the fourth quarter, Kyle Van Noy looped around left end on a delayed blitz that flushed Brady out of the pocket. Brady avoided the sack but threw the ball beyond the back of the end zone, leaving the Bucs to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Succop.
It was one of three cases when the Bucs (3-1) drove into the red zone and failed to score a touchdown. Brady, no doubt, could have really used his safety-net tight end, Rob Gronkowski, in such situations. Gronkowski, though, didn’t make the trip for what would have also been his return engagement, out with a rib injury suffered during the Week 3 loss at the Los Angeles Rams.
The defensive wrinkles were only part of the package. While rookie quarterback Mac Jones kept mistakes to a minimum, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels rolled with a few gadget plays – including a 30-yard completion from Jakobi Meyers on a throwback pass to Nelson Agholor that was New England’s biggest play on a night when it mustered minus-1 yard rushing.
Of course, Brady noticed. The big play had shades of Julian Edelman all over it.
“Josh really dialed up some good plays, too,” Brady said. “They kind of hit everything. I saw them coming in couple reverse passes and throwback. They did a good job. But in the end it always comes down to a couple plays. Happy we made them.”
In the end, Brady won again. Which is pretty much what happens (still) for him at Gillette Stadium.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.