Four things to watch for when Tom Brady, Buccaneers face off against Bill Belichick, Patriots 

8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) | Gillette Stadium

We’ve been talking about this one since the schedule was released in May.

There hasn’t been as significant a reunion in football since Peyton Manning returned to Indianapolis as a Denver Bronco, and frankly, this one is much bigger. Tom Brady left New England without much of an explanation and with even less of a reaction from the Patriots, who responded simply with a statement. They’ll have a chance to make a much louder one Sunday night.

Bill Belichick faces off against the quarterback who teamed with him to win six Super Bowl titles in 20 years together. What more do we need to say?

Here are four things to watch Thursday night when the Buccaneers visit the Patriots:

1) The introductions

Brady spent two decades being introduced as the starting quarterback of the home team, taking the field to the roar of support from the friendly fans of the Patriots. He’ll take the field at Gillette Stadium from the visitor’s tunnel for the first time in his career, and while we expect more cheers of gratitude than boos, it will undoubtedly be strange for all involved. Brady brought home six Lombardi trophies to New England in his career, an unprecedented run of success that saw him ascend from unknown backup to consensus consideration as the greatest quarterback of all time. He then departed for sunnier skies in Tampa Bay, and left behind a Patriots team that lacked a legitimate replacement for him. That replacement appears to have arrived, but the Patriots are still trying to find their way back to contention. Brady, meanwhile, is again defending a title, this time one won with the Buccaneers. Will New England be happy to see their old friend, or still bitter over their divorce?

2) Buccaneers look to bounce back.

Tampa Bay is coming off its first loss since the 2020 regular season, which has to sting a little extra considering the Buccaneers flew clear across the country only to get beat by 10 points by a team that simply played better offensively than even the high-powered Bucs could. If Brady needed any motivation to play with some added fire, a loss would provide it, and that’s before we even consider who he gets to play next. The test, of course, will be how the high-flying Buccaneers fare against the defensive-minded Belichick, who’s been known to shut down explosive offenses in the past. The interesting difference in these Bucs might end up being the difference, though. After averaging over nine air yards per attempt last season, the Buccaneers have gone with a slightly shorter offense through three weeks, averaging eight air yards per attempt in 2021, as well as a quicker average time to throw, producing more target separation and allowing less pressure on Brady. Instead of expecting the Bucs to push the ball down the field against the Patriots, we might see more of the quick-fire Brady that New England grew to adore over two decades. And that might just be the winning ingredient for Tampa Bay.

3) Can Mac Jones right the ship?

The largest age gap between opposing starting quarterbacks arrives Sunday night, with the difference in age between Jones and Brady being old enough to buy a drink (21 years, 33 days). Can New England’s new franchise quarterback figure things out after struggling through his worst game as a pro last week? History says quarterbacks with a lack of experience similar to Jones tend to fare poorly against Brady teams. In games against teams with quarterbacks making their fourth or fewer career start, Brady is 9-0 in his career, owning a 17-1 TD-INT ratio and 103.2 passer rating while the inexperienced counterpart boasts a 7-17 TD-INT ratio and 55.6 passer rating. After throwing three interceptions last week, Jones can’t afford to have a repeat performance if his Patriots want to score an upset win and send New England fans home savoring the sweet taste of revenge.

4) The handshake.

Sunday night’s game might end up being more of a convincing victory for the well-equipped Buccaneers than a thriller, though any time a game involves deep emotions and familiar foes, it’s always difficult to predict a one-sided outcome. Brady is all but guaranteed to reset the all-time career passing yards record in this game, a moment in history that will undoubtedly be both appropriate in New England and a bit awkward. Should Tampa Bay get back on track following the loss, it’ll make for an interesting midfield meeting between Brady and the many Patriots, staff included. Brady spoke Thursday of being excited to get another chance to win a game, and that he’d speak with his former teammates and coaches (offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, for one) afterward. It might be a little tougher for them to smile when seeing the legend they know so well if he’s just sent them to 1-3.

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