Guess Who’s Back, Back Again

“Guess who’s back, back again. Brady’s back, tell a friend. Guess who’s back, guess who’s back? Guess who’s back, guess who’s back? Guess who’s back, guess who’s back? Guess who’s back?”

After speculation every single day of Tom Brady‘s “retirement”, he’s officially sick of being home with his family and heading back to the NFL. Brady announced he will be returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for his 23rd season in the league and is just not ready to watch football “in the stands.” While this news isn’t exactly shocking, for me, it’s disappointing. I absolutely hate when players retire and unretire, especially when the retirement is shorter than Seattle’s 4th and 1 in Super Bowl 49 (cheap shot, I know). And I don’t want to hear it from those who say Brady “never officially retired or said the word retire.” He retired in every sense of the word and is now reversing his decision a mere 41 days later and I hate it.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of “retire” is “to withdraw from one’s position or occupation: conclude one’s working or professional career.” When someone chooses to retire in sports, the definition has been modified to be “to temporarily conclude one’s professional career until boredom sets in or one gets sick of being at home with their family.” Tom Brady is just the most recent example of sports stars retiring and unretiring, devaluing what it means to actually walk away from a sport as a player. In the NFL there are a bunch of modern-day examples, including QB Brett Favre (on multiple occasions), RB Marshawn Lynch and WR Randy Moss. The NFL is not the only sport with an unretirement issue, the NBA saw one of it’s greatest players (I’m not getting into that GOAT debate), Michael Jordan, follow that path on a few occasions.

For me Brady’s decision caused me to lose just a little respect for him. I’m 100% sure he doesn’t know who I am or give a crap about me or my opinion of him, but it’s just getting harder to watch him and the decisions he’s making. What seems clear now is that when the rumors of his retirement were sent into the social media world, he reacted rashly and decided to make an announcement before he was ready. Instead of just ignoring the noise and doing things on his terms, like he has seemingly done his whole career, he became reactive and jumped to retirement.

A big part of me will always respect Brady and absolutely appreciate him for all the success he brought to New England, but like I would say to my 7 year old, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”

Jimmy Garoppolo’s Future in Question

This season has been a rocky one for San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. It began with the 49ers drafting QB Trey Lance with the #3 pick in the 2021 draft, all but spelling the end of the Garoppolo era in San Francisco after 5 seasons. With his massive contract ending this offseason, I would be shocked if the 49ers decide to retain the former Patriots backup, leaving him to search around for his next gig in the NFL. While his career numbers are decent and he’s had a few great moments, Jimmy G hasn’t been able to stay on the field for a full season, starting just 45 of the 87 games since joining the 49ers in 2017. At 30 years old, what does the future hold for Jimmy G?

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the career of Jimmy G, it’s 2019. He played in 16 games (of 19 total including playoffs) and took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, but made bay area fans believe that the future was bright. The 49ers were up 20-10 going into the 4th quarter, but Patrick Mahomes dropped 21 unanswered points (that’s never happened before, right?) and the Chiefs took home the trophy. Jimmy G went 20 for 31 for 219 yards, but threw 1 TD and 2 INTs which didn’t help his cause. In the previous game (AFC Championship), a win against the Green Bay Packers, Garoppolo didn’t have a big impact throwing just 8 times (completing 6) for 77 yards with no TDs or INTs. He was helped by a few INTs by his defense and a solid run game.

Overall, while his career numbers are pretty decent, Jimmy G hasn’t proven he can make the big throw in the big moment consistently when his team needs him the most. Garoppolo is 33-14 in 63 regular season and playoff games as an NFL QB (both starting and off the bench) with a 67.7 completion percentage and 11,852 yards (including 2-0 with the Patriots in his 2 starts in 2016). He has 71 TDs and 38 INTs in his career with an 8.4 yards per throw average which are all solid, if not great, numbers. When looking at his ability in big games, it’s not as pretty of a picture. He is 4-2 in the playoffs in 6 starts, but has thrown 4 TDs and 6 INTs and has a completion percentage of just 60.6% and a quarterback rating over 24.5 points lower than his overall career numbers. I know the competition is stiffer in the playoffs, but a precipitous drop in performance certainly won’t be looked at highly by potential suitors.

With such an influx of young talent at the QB position, where does that leave a very good regular season QB at the age of 30? This past season, just 10 QBs aged 30+ started 10+ games for their respective franchises. Of those 10, 1 has already retired (Ben Roethlisberger) and it’s likely that 1 or maybe even 2 more join him (Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, maybe Matt Ryan). While 30 is not old, if given another starting opportunity Jimmy G will be one of the oldest QBs in the NFL, which is crazy to think about. The emergence of QBs coming out of college ready to compete within a few seasons on much more economical deals has made GMs think twice before investing $25+ million in a free agent, like the 49ers did with Jimmy G in 2018. GMs will be looking to strike it rich with guys like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati and Josh Allen in Buffalo who are both 25 and have more than proved their immense value this postseason.

The overall picture isn’t amazing for Jimmy G, but there are a few interesting landing spots for his talent. The Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Pittsburgh Steelers seem like the most likely spots for Garoppolo if he’s going to find another starting gig. The Bucs is an unlikely scenario, but as a Pats fan, a fun one to think about if/when Brady retires. They drafted University of Florida QB Kyle Trask this year, but if he’s not ready, they may want a veteran for a year to fill the gap. The Saints made sense with Sean Payton at the helm and a potential need for a QB, but with his retirement, I’m not sure what the future system will look like. The Broncos and the Football Team (still odd to type) have picks in the top 11 of the draft and both will likely be looking for their next guy. They both seem to have cap space to bring in Jimmy G to provide a veteran presence to guide the future young QB and maybe keep the team competitive in the short-term.

An interesting spot for me is the Steelers. They are without a viable starting QB and don’t have a high draft pick to grab one (#20), so they might need a stop-gap for a few years to get and develop their next guy. If so, Jimmy G could be a really enticing option as a veteran who can step in and win some games post-Big Ben. The team is solid overall and with a healthy Jimmy G could make a playoff run in year 1 without a major drop-off. Garoppolo loves a run-heavy, short-to-mid passing game scheme and the Steelers could fit that bill with the talented young RB Najee Harris and a solid receiving core with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR Diontae Johnson, and the Massachusetts native TE Pat Freiermuth.

At this point in his career, I think Jimmy G is still an NFL starting QB. He’s not likely to get a big and/or long deal, but will be an intriguing option for the next year or two for teams looking to be competitive while thinking through longer-term options. I don’t think I’m the only one in New England that hopes Garoppolo can find a starting job and stay on the field in 2022.

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, AKA The 🐐, Has Retired (Officially)

After a rocky retirement leak and some fast backpedaling, the news most everyone expected was made official: Tom Brady has retired. After 22 seasons in the NFL, the greatest QB of all time has decided to hang up his cleats and spend more time with his family. The 7-time super bowl champion is unmatched in damn-near every NFL stat category and after a brief 2-season fling with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be forever remembered as a New England Patriot (even if they are not mentioned in his retirement message). At 44-years old, Brady certainly didn’t look to be declining in skill this past season which makes his retirement even more respectable. He’s walking away from the game he loves while still playing at the highest level at an unthinkable age. Whether you loved him or hated him, there is no QB in the history of football that compares in terms of accomplishment.

An underdog in the NFL from day 1, Brady played with a massive chip on his shoulder and a competitive drive that pushed him to be the best every single day. The long talked about 6th round, 199th overall selection, Brady always gave his team a chance to win and almost single-handedly carried many of those teams to championship victories. Brady won 3 MVPs and finished in the top 3 in MVP voting 5 other times. His durability was a thing of beauty, missing a total of 19 games since becoming a starter and not missing a single game in 18 his 20 full seasons (I’m leaving out 2001 because he didn’t become starter until week 2). Of the 19 missed games, 4 were due to suspension and 15 due to his week 1 ACL and MCL tear at the hands of S Bernard Pollard on a sack attempt. It could be the TB12 diet and exercise routines he developed or just incredible genetics, but his sustained endurance and longevity is another unmatched quality in his career.

One of Brady’s most outrageous skills was his clutch gene. His ability to lead a big 4th quarter or OT drive for a tie or win is unmatched and is something we’ll likely never see again. According to Pro Football Reference, Brady has 42 4th quarter comebacks in his career and 54 game-winning-drives, just 1 behind Peyton Manning in both categories. As a fan (either for or against), you knew that if you gave him any time left with a chance to drive down field and tie or win, it was almost automatic and the game was far from over. There was always an intangible feeling that as soon as Brady touched the ball with a chance to make something big happen, it was going to happen.

The plethora of notable moments in Brady’s career are too plentiful to list. For the older casual NFL fan, he’ll always be known for the tuck-rule snow game that changed how the NFL adjudicated fumble vs forward pass during the 2001 AFC Championship game and more recently, for the insane 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in 2017 with 31 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter, 4th quarter, and OT. For younger fans and Buccaneers fans, he’ll be remembered for leaving New England and getting his 7th ring in the Florida sun and returning the Lombardi Trophy to the Buccaneers after an 18 span without a title.

From a Pats fan, thank you Tom (even if the feeling isn’t mutual)! While it’s the end of the Tom Brady era on the football field, I have a feeling we’ll still be hearing a lot from the former QB with the TB12 brand and his new clothing brand. He’s not going away quietly.

The Best NFL Divisional Round Ever, Hands Down

After a mostly boring wild card round with 4 of 6 games resulting in blowouts, NFL fans were desperate for some strong, competitive football and the divisional round this weekend more than delivered. The 4 games were all decided by 1 score and each game was won on the final possession as time ran out or in OT. Of the 4 matchups, 3 were upsets by road teams and the only home win was the best game of the weekend, and one of the best games of all time, with a Kansas City win in OT. There was a huge Tom Brady comeback, a 13-second drive to tie a game and send it to OT, a blocked-punt TD to tie a game, and an interception with 20 seconds left that led to a game-winning FG, to name a few. I’m not even close to an NFL historian, but I can’t imagine a more compelling weekend of football in the history of the game than the 2022 divisional round this past weekend.

The weekend kicked off with the Cincinnati Bengals fresh off their first playoff victory in 21 years looking to upset the #1 Tennessee Titans on the road and make their first AFC Championship game since 1988. The Mike Vrabel led Titans had time to rest and prepare for the insanely young and impressive talent of the Bengals and got great news that workhorse RB Derrick Henry would be off IR and ready to roll. It was a low-scoring game led by the defenses and it’s only appropriate that a defensive play, a Logan Wilson interception with 20 seconds left, set up the game-winning 52-yard FG for the Bengals. This is likely the beginning of a strong run for the Bengals, because the main weapons in Cincy are all 25 and under, QB Joe Burrow, RB Joe Mixon, WR Ja’Marr Chase, and WR Tee Higgins and they are led by a 38-year old head coach Zac Taylor. The road walk-off FG was just the beginning.

Saturday’s game #2 was the vaunted 49ers vs Packers matchup that was the 72nd overall time they have met and 9th time in the playoffs. Everyone knows what the weather will be like in a night game at Lambeau Field in January and it didn’t disappoint with temperatures in the teens, wind chill in the single digits and below and snow flurries. Green Bay set the tone early with an opening drive TD capped off by New London, CT native and former Boston College star RB AJ Dillon. It seemed like we would see more offense than the first game, but the game slowed to a crawl. Neither team scored again until a FG from the 49ers with 8:31 left in the 3rd quarter. A Packers FG early in the 4th pushed their lead back to 7 points and it remained that way until the 49ers blocked a punt and ran it in for a TD with just under 5 minutes to go, tying the game at 10. After a 3-and-out for the Packers, Jimmy Garoppolo was able to give K Robbie Gould a 45-yard FG try, which he nailed as time ran out to win 13-10. Saturday recap: 2 games, 2 walkoff FGs, 2 upsets on the road.

As the Los Angeles Rams vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers game began on Sunday, it felt like the close-game magic had worn off. For the Bucs, the first half drives consisted of a punt, punt, FG, punt, missed FG, and interception, while the Rams were able to score on their first 3 drives and go into halftime up 20-3. It could have been an even larger lead if it wasn’t for the Rams 1st of 4 lost fumbles in the game. After exchanging punts to start the 2nd half, the Rams added another TD and took a commanding 27-3 lead, but with Tom Brady on the other side of the field, there was too much time left. Aided by 3 more lost fumbles, the Bucs scored 24 unanswered points and tied the game at 27 with 1:43 seconds left to play. The collective NFL fanbase was thinking, “Are you f*$king kidding me?” The Brady magic was still alive somehow, but Matthew Stafford had other plans. The Rams went 63-yards on 5 plays to setup a 30-yard Matt Gay walkoff FG for Los Angeles. The road-team, FG walkoff streak was still on with 1 game to go. 3 games down, 3 walkoff road upsets.

The final game was the QB matchup I was most excited for: Josh Allen vs Patrick Mahomes. Both QBs can beat you with their arm or legs, which instantly makes the game a must-see and boy oh boy it did NOT disappoint. From kickoff, both teams looked aggressive and ready to lay it all on the line for the W. The Bills converted 2 4th downs on their opening 13 play, 71 yard TD drive and made a statement. Mahomes and KC returned the favor with an 11 play 74 yard TD of their own on their first drive and it was time to buckle-up and enjoy the ride. The teams were tied 7-7 after 1, 14-14 at half and KC took a 2 point lead after 3, 23-21. Then came one of the greatest quarters I’ve ever seen, well, actually 2 of the best minutes I’ve ever seen. KC was up 26-21 at the 2 minute warning and little did we know there would still be 4 lead changes/ties and 25 points left to be scored BEFORE the game headed to OT. Let’s break down the final 2 minutes…

1:54 – Bills have a 4th and 13 on the KC 27 – Josh Allen throws a TD to Gabriel Davis and completes the 2-pt conversion attempt (29-26 Bills)

1:02 – KC scores a TD after a 5 play, 75 yard drive in 52 seconds (33-29 KC)

0:13 – Bills score a TD after a 6 play, 75 yard drive in 49 seconds (36-33 Bills)

0:00 – KC kicks a 49-yard FG to tie the game after a 3 play, 44 yard drive in 13 seconds (36-36)

I’ve never seen a more impressive QB display from both teams in a 2 minute stretch at any level. For both teams to have a 75 yard drive in under 1 minute and for Mahomes to drive 44 yards in 13 seconds to setup the game-tying FG was incredible. Some of the throws and scrambles on both sides were unreal. As it always is, overtime was awful thanks to the NFL rules, but I’ll leave that argument for another day. The Bills never had a chance to touch the ball again thanks to the coin toss going KC’s way and the Chiefs won in OT, preventing the road team from winning all the divisional round games for the first time in history. It was, however, the 4th of 4 games to have the lead change and the game end on the final possession, which is phenomenal to watch and not for the weak of heart.

The regulation time of the final game of the weekend was the best of the NFL. The refs weren’t involved in every play, stupid ticky-tack fouls weren’t being called every other down (4 penalties for 25 yards combined), and the teams and their good (or bad) decisions are what resulted in the tie to send it to OT. The discipline of both the players and the refs produced a much more interesting product for everyone, from the casual fan to the diehard maniac. It’s a shame that the NFL had to muck-up the end result with the still ridiculous overtime rules. The idea that a coin toss decided the winner of that QB match-up is the worst of the NFL. Yes, if you are a fan of KC it benefited you (and hurt you against the Patriots in the 2019 AFC Championship), but don’t you think the Bills and Josh Allen deserved a chance to touch the football in OT? Even KC lobbied to have the rule change after their Patriots OT loss in 2019 (although they aren’t complaining this year).

With a combination of some fresh and some familiar faces in the championship games, next weekend should be fun to watch. Grab some cold beverages and a lot of snacks, because beginning at 3pm next Sunday you won’t want to miss the back-to-back action.

The Revenge Tour of Antonio Brown

Ever since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown took off his jersey and walked out of MetLife stadium during Sunday’s matchup with the New York Jets, social media has blown up with theories, stories, and rants. The millions of tweets and posts about the incident snowballed after the game when Bucs head coach Bruce Arians stated that he “is no longer a Buc”, but as it turns out, that was just the tip of an ugly iceberg. As the hours passed, more information was revealed about Brown’s ankle injury and then the next morning, Brown told his side of the story.

It was at this point that my opinion began to shift. Brown has a checkered history on and off the field (to put it nicely) and frankly hasn’t earned the benefit of doubt that others with cleaner histories might have received in this situation. My initial reaction to Brown stripping and leaving the field mid-game on Sunday was to say “well, it was only a matter of time”. This is not the first organization he left under bizarre circumstances and it may not be his last, but his clearly-written-by-someone-else side of the story was compelling and completely believable.

Brown claimed, among other things, that he was given dangerous painkillers and forced to play on Sunday despite a serious ankle injury. During the game, there was a confrontation with Arians and Brown in which, according to Brown, the coach told him that “if [he] didn’t play hurt, then [he] was done with the Bucs” and when Brown refused to go back into the game, Arians told him “YOU’RE DONE”. Brown then left the field (in the most Brown-like way, half-naked and riling up the fans). His description of the events struck a chord with me and screams old-school football. Professional football for decades was a place where players were forced take shots of painkillers and sacrifice their long-term health for the betterment of the team on any given Sunday. While it’s still a part of the game, there have been a lot of health and wellness policies in place over the last decade or so that prevent some of the abuses of old.

Bruce Arians has been a coach in some capacity since the mid-70s and grew through the ranks of football when the consideration for a players body wasn’t even on the radar. While I believe the truth is somewhere between Brown’s statement and Arians’ statement, Brown’s statement is both believable and potentially seriously damaging. If he was in any way forced to take painkillers and play through a chipped bone in his ankle, then Arians has no place in the NFL as a coach. That’s a big if, but still. The main issue preventing us from learning the truth and believing his story? Brown himself.

If Brown had left his initial statement as is and just moved on from Sunday, the narrative would be very different today. Instead, he decided to use the opportunity to scorch the earth and make everyone around him pay (or so he thinks). In a fit of anger or delusion, Brown chose to post pictures of text conversations with Arians and trainer Alex Guerrero while also calling out Tom Brady for his connection with Guerrero. Oh yeah, and he accidently put an image with his bank account information in it for all to see (he later deleted it, but not before a ton of people saved it). Anyone who was sympathizing with Brown, myself included, is now left to once again question their own feelings on the clearly mentally unstable receiver.

And did I mention he dropped a new song, “Pit Not The Palace” just after he grabbed headlines by running off the field mid-game? It’s getting hard to find redeeming qualities about Brown and I’m already regretting sympathizing with the man on Monday. For his sake, I hope he is getting the support he needs and that the network around him is strong.

The story is clearly not over and I’m guessing we won’t ever have the true version of what happened, but as of Thursday, Brown is officially no long a Tampa Bay Buccaneer and is headed for ankle surgery with the intent, it seems, to return to the NFL next season. Regardless of how you feel about Brown, Arians, or the Bucs, this story has been drama-filled and exhausting to follow. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Biggest Winner on Sunday was Mac Jones

I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.

Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?

While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).

Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.

Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.

I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.

While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.

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.

The Curious Case of Nick Folk’s Resurgence

Over the years, fans of the New England Patriots have been incredibly spoiled in the kicking department, with just 3 kickers signed in total from 1996 through October 2, 2019. The first 10 seasons of that span were Adam Vinatieri, then Stephen Gostkowski from 2006-2019. There was an 8-game stint that required the assistance of Shayne Graham in 2010 when Gostkowski’s season was cut short with a thigh injury, but until October 2, 2019, those 3 were it. The Patriots then signed K Mike Nugent the day following Gostkowski’s injury in 2019 and after 3 weeks, released him to sign current Patriots kicker Nick Folk; just the 5th kicker at the time to sign in New England in 23 seasons.

My reaction to the Nick Folk signing on October 30, 2019 was not a positive one. I watched a fair amount of Folk earlier in his career during his 3-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys and then his 7-year stint with the New York Jets and the results were mixed, to put it generously. In 2009, Folk hit only 64.3% of his field goal attempts, which ultimately led to him landing with the Jets. His career with the Jets was better after the first few years, but there was always a sense that he would miss the big kick in a clutch situation, whether warranted or not. After being released from the Jets in 2017, Folk spent one miserable year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before looking for work in the Alliance of American Football.

Then in October of 2019 the Patriots came calling to give him another shot in the NFL at age 34. Since joining the Patriots, Nick Folk has somehow turned himself into a reliable and consistent place kicker, improving upon all of his previous career numbers. Prior to coming to New England, Folk was an 80.3% field goal kicker who hit 91.7% of tries under 30 yards, 89.9% from 30-39 yards, and just 66.7% from 40+. In his two+ years with the Patriots, Folk has hit 90.4% of all his field goal tries, including an insane 100% from under 40 yards (26 tries) and 80.8% from 40+ yards. For comparison, Adam Vinatieri was only an 81.9% field goal kicker in his 10 seasons with the Pats. To be fair Folk has missed 4 extra points in his 48 attempts with the Pats (91.7%), but overall he’s made up for those 4 points with many more field goals made.

In 2020, Folk ranked as the 8th best kicker in football by field goal percentage (92.9%), well ahead of the Pats former kicker Stephen Gostkowski (69.2%) who ranked 31st out of 33 in football. In 2021, Folk is looking just as strong as last season early on, hitting his first 7 tries in 2 games thus far. In week 1, Folk broke the Patriots consecutive field goal streak (formerly 29) and extended it in the win over the New York Jets on Sunday to 33-straight. To break a kicking record in New England is incredible given the recent history of Vinatieri and Gostkowski at that position.

It’s still hard for me to not cringe when Folk is kicking a field goal in a big spot, but by all accounts he has been great for the Pats. With a rookie QB that is being eased into the NFL, Folk becomes an even more critical piece this season to score points and thus deserves more attention than in the past. Let’s hope this new Nick Folk trend of reliability and consistency is here to stay.