If you’re Bill Belichick, it is fair to pat yourself on the back and try to kick yourself in the backside at the same time after a Sunday night loss that, as it turns out, was never really about Tom Brady. It was more about what the Patriots are now and where they’re headed.
The good of it all, something Belichick will probably not allow himself to marinate on—certainly not in the moments after his seemingly painful half-hug of Brady at midfield, or after that gut-shot second on the sideline when Nick Folk’s potential game-winning field goal loudly thudded off the left upright and Belichick’s eyes dropped to the turf—was that this was one of his finer coaching performances of the last few years. We seem to forget that New England is in the midst of a hasty rebuild following the departure of the greatest player in NFL history. Believing the Patriots would ever look like the Patriots from 2001 to ’18 again is a little like believing in your new hairpiece, or the obviously patched piece of drywall jutting out of your living room wall.
Despite their free agency upgrades, the Patriots were not a team in the same personnel class as the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has one of the single greatest skill position depth charts in modern NFL history. Even without Rob Gronkowski, their ability to force a bad defender on an All-Pro-caliber pass catcher is better, at this moment, than any other team in football. New England held that offense to fewer than six yards per pass. Brady posted his lowest completion percentage in a game (51.2%) since joining the Bucs.
The downside was why Belichick decided against channeling all that positivity into allowing his current quarterback the chance to win the game. Mac Jones at one point completed 19 straight passes on Sunday. It would be a cheap, but potentially feasible argument that Jones outplayed his predecessor in Foxboro. The Buccaneers’ secondary was one more injury away from being more effectively replaced with a wet sheet of newspaper.
And yet, the Patriots decided to attempt a 56-yard field goal—which would have been the longest kick Nick Folk has made since 2010—amid a driving rain. Why not, on fourth-and-3 from the opponent’s 37-yard line, put your trust in Jones to utilize his accuracy, hitting one of their myriad new targets who would almost certainly be working on a mismatch?
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The decision didn’t seem to square with what Belichcik was trying to tell us throughout the night; that this team would eventually be fine, that they were full of developing talent, that they can hang in these games without Brady. He was trying to show us that he still had it, which was evident by the fact that the Patriots didn’t have a single pass rusher consistently beat the league average in quarterback-defender separation throughout the night and that Leonard Fournette cruised on the ground but the Buccaneers still couldn’t put up points.
It seemed like every time Brady tried to press the accelerator on Sunday, the Buccaneers were caught in swamp water, slowing one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL to a crawl.
The same could be said for New England’s offense, which succeeded despite a complete lack of a running game. NFL’s Next Gen Stats graded the Buccaneers’ run defense, which held Damien Harris to negative-4 yards on four carries, as the second-best single-game performance since 2018. Belichick and Josh McDaniels’s respective game plans and adjustments were proof that the backbone of their success, the ingenuity, still existed.
When Belichick was asked after the game if he’d thought about going for it, he said “I mean, not really.” It was the expected, dismissive response and there is little doubt a thesis worth of work went into deciding that Folk was prepared to make the kick (indeed, he almost made it and certainly possessed the leg strength despite the weather), a benefit of the doubt we still provide Belichick even if the Patriots are not The Patriots anymore.
Maybe we question it because, subconsciously, we just wanted it to end that way. We spent the entire week swirling with these narratives about the defensive coach and his now nemesis former quarterback. Having Belichick’s heir win the game on a steely fourth down throw would have been as satiating an ending we could have asked for.
But maybe we question it because we started to see what is developing in New England and how good the Patriots could be again. It will never look like it once did. But that doesn’t mean you can’t coach the team like you once had, complementing a brilliant game plan with the faith that your chosen quarterback can hit a three-yard slant when the game depends on it.
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