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Week 4 Preview: Brady Vs. Belichick in a Game for, Well, None of the Marbles

Also, a look at what’s causing the Chiefs’ woes and why it probably won’t continue, the Cowboys taketh away, Joe Judge on Bill Gates, and more. Plus, musical guest: Radiohead!

1a. The game in which the Patriots play the Buccaneers will be fun! How will Bill Belichick defend a quarterback who—unlike the ex-Patriot QB also-rans he’s picked on in matchups past—he worked with for 20 seasons? Will Brady feel the urge to play hero ball in what could be his only chance to beat Belichick head-to-head? During the post-game handshake, will it be a cold, half-hearted exchange of pleasantries? Or, regardless of outcome, will they pull each other close, forehead-to-forehead, and whisper to one another: “Eat fresh.”

But as far as the importance of this game? It’s inter-conference, so the chances of it affecting a tiebreaker scenario is miniscule. And with the 17th game added to the schedule, every regular-season game this season is .37% less important than any played during the 16-game era. Mathematically, this is one of the least important games of each man’s NFL career.

But, legacy. The legacacity is through the roof right now. This is going to be a positively legacasitc affair in Foxboro. You know the rules by now: The winner gets to seize all assets and is granted power of attorney in perpetuity over the other. The loser, meanwhile, will have to scale Mount Nyiragongo and drop his six Patriots Super Bowl rings into the molten lava below, then be air-lifted to the surface of Mars where he’ll live out a Dr. Manhattan-like existence pondering the complexities and consequences of human conflict, but instead will immediately perish because you need a spacesuit, at least, on Mars. And that’s the kind of thing the competition committee is talking about when they say “unintended consequences.”

NFL Week 4 Preview

1b. The point is this: Going into this game, Brady is the greatest player in football history and Belichick is the greatest coach in football history. It’s quite obvious that Brady wouldn’t be Brady without Belichick and Belichick wouldn’t be Belichick without Brady. All those things will hold true when we wake up Monday morning. The “most important regular-season game ever” narrative is just so a bunch of dorks have something to yell about on Monday morning. So subscribe to our podcast and I’ll tell you which one of these NFL legends is a fraud from the comfort of my finished basement.

1c. On the mid-week episode of The MMQB Podcast, we already traveled the multiverse to lay out, indisputably, how things would have played out had Tom Brady re-signed with the Patriots in the winter of 2020. But, in light of people yelling at me through various mediums that—to borrow a term that my father used during his Little League coaching days—Belichick pulled a real boner when he let Brady walk, let's unfurl some other near-possibilities that didn't quite come to be. (We won’t get bogged down in semantics, but Belichick only wanted Brady back on his terms, which is a close relative of “let him walk.”)

The Patriots would undoubtedly be better off right now with Brady as their quarterback, but if you go back and watch what went on in the second half of 2019, you would have seen a limited quarterback running a broken offense. Josh McDaniels had been frequently resorting to gadget plays, always a tell that he doesn’t trust his offense to execute. Had Brady returned last year, New England (considering all the opt outs on the defensive side of the ball) was a borderline playoff team at best, and certainly would not have been able to hold off the Bills for the division crown. Were Brady still there in 2021, they probably would have built differently last winter and an optimist could argue they’d be 1A to Buffalo’s 1 in the AFC East.

Brady getting away is only part of the story. It only feels like an enormous mistake because there happened to be a perfect landing spot in Tampa, a team that: (a) Already had elite talent in place offensively, both in terms of weapons and in terms of offensive line—as much as game charters piled the demerits onto Donovan Smith during the Jameis years, a big part of it was that he was tasked with pass-protecting for five seconds on every snap due to that goofy offense they ran; (b) Had a need for a schematic upgrade that Brady would be able to provide; and (c) Had an elite defensive mind to steer the other side of the ball and ensure Brady wouldn’t have to carry the team on his back.

Forget New England. Imagine if Brady had settled on one of his other suitors, either by his choice or because Jameis Winston had actually improved under the current Bucs coaching staff. If Brady is in Chicago right now, playing behind that offensive line with his limited mobility and increasing skittishness when pressured, the Bears would still be trying to eek out 20–17 wins to keep pace with the Packers. Had he signed with the Raiders, he’d have the same issue he had with the roster in New England—limited outside weapons—and last season would have been tasked with outscoring opponents across from a defense that couldn’t get off the field. If he had signed with the 49ers, they'd be contenders this season but would not have won 10 games with their rash of injuries to both sides of the ball a year ago. Tampa was a only spot that offered any kind of upgrade for Brady, and if they were already spoken for in regards to a quarterback the shouty people would have a lot less to shout about.

2. We can all agree that the Chiefs are the best team in football. And we can all agree that it is true in spite of the fact that they have some issues at the reactionary positions (O-line and defensive backfield)—always especially problematic. But a lot of times those things work themselves out as the season goes along and continuity improves.

What isn’t going to change is the way in which opponents try to beat the Chiefs: Keep two safeties back and limit big plays, do everything you can to shorten the game, steal it late. The past two weeks, it worked!

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But the problem with shortening a game against the Chiefs is that, in all likelihood, you’ll be trailing in the second half and then, naturally, the prospect of shortening the game becomes much less appetizing. They only lost in Baltimore because of a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble. They lost the turnover battle 4–0 to the Chargers last week—three of those turnovers coming on snaps that took place inside the Chargers’ 40—and still had a chance to win that game. (Weirdly, their one win came in the one game they shouldn’t have won, the opener against Cleveland.) The fact remains: If the Chiefs lead a game in the fourth quarter, they’re probably going to win. Which is why they'll probably be sitting atop the AFC West come January.

3a. Coming into the season I was thinking, ultimately, Dan Quinn might be no more than a band-aid for the Cowboys defense. If there’s one thing we learned from his stints in Seattle and Atlanta, he needs elite talent and he needs that talent to stay healthy. Because if you reach a point when you can no longer beat opponents with your talent, things fall apart.

But the turnaround for this defense three games into 2021 is noticeable. Part of it is that Micah Parsons has been a difference maker, especially since moving down to play edge fulltime (though, really, he's just providing what they lost in DeMarcus Lawrence). And part of it is a natural progression for some of the younger guys in this unit. But it’s easy to see how much faster this unit is playing in Quinn’s scheme, and while sometimes takeaways are the product of luck (for instance, only one team in the league is going to put themselves in a position to allow Leonard Fournette the opportunity to set a la Jordyn Poulter and turn a screen pass into an easy interception). But right now, the Cowboys have eight takeaways, a number they didn’t reach until the Sunday before Thanksgiving last season. They’re getting off the field, something they struggled to do a year ago, Dallas’s expansive rushing attack is keeping the offense on the field and complementing Dak Prescott beautifully, and the gap between the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East right now is sizable.

3b. Micah Parsons is especially fascinating because of the struggles we’ve seen from another tweener who went high first round, Isaiah Simmons. Two does not a trend make, but as football becomes increasingly positionless it’ll be interesting to consider whether stack LB/edge tweeners stand a better chance than LB/safety tweeners going forward. Anyway, that's something to ponder in a non-specific way some other time.

3c. I know what you're thinking: Jordyn Poulter gets the shoutout as an elite setter when it's Startseva Evgeniya who has a decade-long run of near flawless play on the volleyball court? How very jingoistic of you! And to you, I say this: Right now, based on what she did in Tokyo (and on a bum ankle!) Jordyn Poulter the best setter in the world, and I will go on basic cable and shout it in barely intelligible fashion anytime, anywhere. So if anyone is going to be compared to Leonard Fournette for their ability to consistently get two hands on a ball but not catch it, it's Poulter.

4. I thought the Joe Judge thing would work out longterm—and it still might—but he’s walking an awfully thin line doing the Belichick cosplay thing. This week, in a response to a question about fourth-down analytics, Judge tossed out, in part, “You can look at a stat sheet all you want, but I promise you if Excel was going to win football games Bill Gates would be killing it right now.”

Judge’s answer was a cousin of the “technology is for nerds” schtick, like when a coach is asked about something on social media and he fires back, I don’t do social media, my tweet name is idontcareaboutfacebook@email.internetpornography. And the true legends will work in a “waka waka waka!” and maybe squirt the communications director with one of those flowers with the little water squirter in it. (You know, the little water squirter?)

Judge’s overall answer is correct. A fourth-down decision is based partly on analytics, but it’s also based partly on, Do we have a play that will work here? Have we been building to something in our play-calling that we can break out at this moment? Of course the Giants use analytics to inform their fourth-down decisions, and Judge is right that there’s more than goes into the decision. And I think he can answer the question without sounding kinda like a butt, and opening himself up to the 7 million Bill Gates has as many wins this year as Joe Judge tweets that flooded my timeline in the aftermath.

5. We're about 10 months into the Urban Meyer era in Jacksonville, which is too early to make any definitive statements except that it's truly remarkable that any coach could go this long into his tenure without a single positive development to point to. Just mistakes and mismanagement with some embarrassment layered on top, and an 0–4 record to show for it.

6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Radiohead!

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