5 Things to Watch for in Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro

If you don’t know that Tom Brady is returning to Gillette Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to face the Patriots this weekend then you must be living in a bunker somewhere. Since the moment the Patriots vs Saints game ended on Sunday (and frankly before), there have been flurries of articles and posts about one of, if not the most, anticipated regular season matchup in NFL history. Ticket prices are absolutely insane and there are as many opinions this homecoming as there are Dunkin Donuts in the greater Boston area. I’m taking simple approach and just looking at the top 5 things to watch for on Sunday night.

1. All-Time Passing Record

This is one of the biggest stories of the Tom Brady return to Foxboro. Brady is just 68 yards away from breaking Drew Brees‘ all-time passing yards record for a career with 80,258 and it will happen on Sunday night at the stadium where he threw the majority of those passes. Could you script a storyline any better than the reality? I don’t think so. The biggest question is how the Patriots and NFL will recognize this accomplishment that likely will never be broken again the way the game has evolved. When Peyton Manning broke the record in 2015 they game was halted to allow for players to congratulate him, there was a tribute played on the video board, and the ball was removed from play to head to the Hall of Fame in Canton. The biggest difference is that Manning was at home in Denver, but I’m still wondering what the moment will be like in front of fans who supported and loved Tom Brady for 2 decades.

Will everyone put aside the differences and give Brady the proper congratulations? Will the Pats allow for a video board tribute or some type of acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishment? If you are as interested as I am, it’s likely the record gets broken in the 1st half, probably the 1st quarter, so don’t grab a snack or take a bathroom break when the Bucs are on offense early in the game.

2. Defensive Struggles for Both Teams

For both teams, their defenses, and specifically their secondarys, have struggled at times early in the 2021 season. For the Bucs, they have allowed the 7th most 1st downs to opponents (71), the most passes completed to opponents by a lot (104), and the most yards (1,015). While part of that can be explained by their opponents, if they want to have a deep run in the postseason like last year and defend their title, the defense needs to improve. It was announced on Wednesday morning that CB Richard Sherman would sign with the Bucs which will help their weak secondary, but he won’t solve all of their problems. QB Mac Jones should be able to find some windows to throw into on Sunday and hopefully he can take advantage of the weaker secondary of the Bucs and show off in front of his predecessor.

The Pats on the other hand have to face the greatest QB of all-time in his homecoming on the night in which he will break the all-time passing yards record, which is a brutally difficult task for any defense. While the Pats stats on defense don’t look terrible on paper, that’s primarily because they have faced QBs Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, and Jameis Winston in their 3 match-ups thus far and sit at just 1-2 against them. Their opponents relied heavier on the run and the Pats weren’t always up for the task. Sunday night’s game will be an entirely different test for the secondary and there is a real risk of an absolute blowout with Brady throwing for 400+ yards. Can Bill Belichick disguise coverages and actually do anything to trick his former QB? He must in order to have a chance at winning this game.

3. Rob Gronkowski‘s Usage

One of the more interesting early-season NFL stories in 2021 is the return of Rob Gronkowski to an incredible form we haven’t seen in a long time. In just 3 games, he has 4 TDs, has caught 80% of passes thrown to him (16/20) and is averaging 9.2 yards per reception. He racked up a lot of those numbers in the first 2 games of the season (12/13) and is likely coming into Sunday night’s game looking to prove himself against his former employer. In 2020, his first year in Tampa, Gronk only caught 58.4% of balls thrown to him, which was a career low and while he played 16 games for the first time since 2011, his numbers were not particularly impressive. He clearly came into 2021 trying to prove he still has more to give the NFL.

When you pair Gronk’s early season success with a defense that occasionally has trouble covering TEs, especially when the WRs are as strong as the Bucs, and it could be tough to watch (unless you are a big Gronk fan). While Gronk is only 32, his track record makes me doubt he will be healthy for the entire season and will be able to sustain his blistering start, especially with a 17-game schedule, but you know he’s going to leave it all on the field this week and then probably take it easy through the middle of the schedule to be ready down the stretch and in the postseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 2 Gronk TD spikes this week at Gillette.

4. Post-Game Handshake

In no other area of the country does the post-game handshake get this much attention, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both infamous for ignoring the typical handshake protocol post-game. Depending on how this game unfolds could determine what the post-game interaction looks like between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, if there is any. If Tom Brady absolutely smokes the Pats, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Belichick go straight to the locker room and the same might be true if Brady were to somehow lose. Belichick has been clear in his press conferences this week (as clear as BB ever is) about his desire to keep Brady with the Patriots before his departure, but according to his words “we weren’t as good an option as Tampa”.

With all the chirping from Tom Brady Sr. this week and the competitiveness of both player and coach, you just never know how they really feel about each other and if either will take the high-road and have a nice post-game interaction regardless of the game’s outcome. Despite it being a late Sunday night game, I’ll be glued to my TV for post-game.

5. Danger of a 1-3 Start

The Patriots come into Sunday’s match-up with a tough 1-2 record. Beyond all the Brady headlines and talk of the reunion, a 1-3 start for the Pats could put serious doubts in their ability to make the postseason. Since 1990, just 14.2% of teams beginning the season with a 1-3 record have made the postseason and the average finishing record for those teams is 6-10 with just 1 of the 218 teams winning the super bowl: the 2001 New England Patriots. This year will be a little different with the addition of a 17th game which could have an impact on those numbers, but it’s still not the place you want to be if you have aspirations of playing into mid-to-late January and early February.

A win would obviously be a tremendous accomplishment for this young QB, but I expect 1-3 is in their future. I don’t think this team is a super bowl contender regardless of a 1-3 or 2-2 start, but in the best of circumstances, a run into the postseason is always on the table in New England and the deeper the hole the team digs early on, the harder that will become.

Reason for Positivity on Offense: The New England Patriots

As we sit less than a week from the first 2021 pre-season game for the New England Patriots, there is reason to be hopeful of what this season, and the future, will bring. In the landscape of the four major Boston professional sports, there is a lot of negative energy at the moment: Red Sox are 1-6 in their last 7 and hope is dwindling, the Celtics haven’t gotten much better in the offseason while others have improved, and the Bruins lost some key players and at best are a tick worse than last year. The Pats bring optimism and hope to the landscape after a rocky season last year. One main reason: the offense.

Whether you believe QB Cam Newton, QB Mac Jones, or a combo will be the starter this season, they both have a significantly improved receiving core to target. Both TE Hunter Henry and TE Jonnu Smith would have come into New England as the #1 option, but with the addition of both, it creates a ton of flexibility in play-calling for Josh McDaniels. He loves multiple tight-end sets and is best calling plays in those situations. Both Henry and Smith can hold their own blocking and obviously have made names for themselves catching the football. Maybe most importantly, two talented pass-catching TEs can create massive match-up issues for opponents (i.e. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez).

The WR depth is better than last season, although it didn’t take much to make that happen. The additions of WR Kendrick Bourne and WR Nelson Agholor add depth to the rotation with WR N’Keal Harry and WR Jakobi Meyers. All four have flaws and frankly, don’t always instill confidence, but they can all catch a football on occasion and when not the #1 target, will likely have success as a group. Both Bourne and Agholor are good size targets with ok speed (Bourne is 6’1″ around 200lbs and Agholor is 6’0″ around 200lbs) and can hopefully create separation from a #3 or #4 corner. They should thrive when not getting attention from top corners and their combined 11 years in the league will help the younger Harry and Meyers (combined 4 years) continue to develop.

The running game of the Pats looks similar to last year, but with RB Damien Harris potentially moving up the depth chart. He had some strong moments towards the end of 2020 and is looking to carry that into this season, potentially becoming the focus back over RB Sony Michel. If they are both healthy, the competition should help drive better performance from both. The Pats still have depth at the position with RB Brandon Bolden and receiving back James White. The only real changes are the exit of RB Rex Burkhead and the addition big rookie RB Rhamondre Stevenson from Alabama, but I don’t expect him to see much of the field this year unless the injury bug hits hard or he seriously overperforms. Of course, if Cam Newton is the QB, there will be a lot of designed option plays to use his legs as an advantage as well.

The offensive line for the Pats will look pretty similar to 2020, but with one large addition: OL Trent Brown. My biggest concern with the OL is injuries. Only last year’s rookie OL Mike Onwenu played all 16 games in 2020, so there is some reason for concern. OL Isaiah Wynn has shown some potential when healthy, but has only appeared in 18 games in his 2 seasons in the league and OL Justin Herron who may be the starter at LG appeared in 12 games (6 starts) in his first year in the league in 2020. Veterans C David Andrews and OL Trent Brown bring the experience with a combined 11 seasons in the league, but again, have had trouble playing a full season recently. The other likely starter is OL Shaq Mason who is also solid when on the field. The OL is a solid group as long as they can stay healthy, which is a big concern.

Overall, the offense got significantly better over 2020. They have their QB of the future at least practicing and learning the playbook, if not starting at some point, and they have a significantly stronger receiving core. The TE group will have the biggest impact on the entire offense if healthy, opening up more holes for the run game and making defenses cover more receivers leaving others more open. While last year was almost entirely a running play or a pass to Meyers, this year the offense should be more varied and more interesting to watch and difficult to cover. A real reason for optimism.