It’s the most hyped game in America, this week, this year, this century. The most successful quarterback of all time is heading back to his former home facing his former mentor, trying to put one over the fans who adored him.
Yes, Sunday Night Football is all about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the most successful duo in NFL history going head-to-head for the very first time in their illustrious careers.
Back in February, when a spritely 43-year-old Brady won a seventh Super Bowl ring in his first season with Tampa Bay, the watching NFL Nation simultaneously shared the same emotion. It was as if we all, as one, adopted a wry smile, incredulously shook our head from side to side in wonder, astonished but, at the same time, not surprised, to borrow a line from (President) Jed Bartlet.
Once again, Brady had overcome so much, had silenced the doubters, had bucked the trend — a theme that’s been ever-present in his professional life despite all the success. A pre-season of necessary acclimatisation into new surroundings, new teammates and a new playbook was fractious at best, Covid-19 disrupting so much of his preparation. An indifferent first half of the season, that saw many suggesting the Bucs would fail to even make the playoffs, let alone win the whole thing, cascaded away in a blur of an increasingly fluent offense, marshalled expertly by a rejuvenated Brady. Reclamation projects like Antonio Brown and Leonard “Playoff Lenny” Fournette re-emerged as vital once more, as if they were video game characters with 4% life left that Brady had wandered over to, cerebrally touched and re-upped their energy before the game crashed.
With his latest Super Bowl win, Brady proved, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he is a living, breathing cheat-code, an outlier even in the esteemed company of the Hall of Fame great quarterbacks that stand almost alongside, albeit now with a deferential distance.
But of course, we live in a world where unreasonable doubt is thrown with concerning ease from the cheap seats and the courtside seats alike, shouty voices desperate to be heard, aiming for provocation. As he lifted the Lombardi trophy in brand new colours they screamed: “Brady proved he can win with without Belichick.” His previous six championship rings came with the Patriots, alongside their long-standing head coach, and at once the previous achievements, for both men, were seemingly diluted.
There’s a nonsense narrative that has dogged Brady all his career. It goes a little like this. The situation he found himself in at New England, working under the greatest coach (not to mention GM) the game has ever seen was fortuitous, and that other quarterbacks would have shared the same success as Brady (or even more!) if they’d been in his shoes, making him seem unremarkable in contrast to his coach and mentor, the seemingly omniscient and certainly dry and laconic Belichick. This argument was given further credence by Brady’s playing style. Critics suggested Brady had inferior smarts to contemporaries like Peyton Manning, and a lesser style and range compared to Aaron Rodgers. He was a glorified game manager, they crowed, and as the championships stacked up, this became a concession with a sting in the tail: “Sure, he’s won a few now, but how many would the Pats have won with *insert future Hall of Fame QB here*.”
Winning outside of Foxboro should have answered those critics but, in many respects, their praise for his achievement re-enforced their cynical position about his earlier successes. Or to put it another way, winning in Tampa Bay has demonstrated Brady can succeed when not in the bosom of the greatest dynasty in the history of American sports.
Even more absurdly, the light was suddenly shone on Belichick. What does this say about their legacy? Brady can win without his coach, but can Bill move on without his quarterback? Who needed who more, we were asked?
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It’s a dialogue that’s not only disrespectful, but wholly illogical. The construct of the NFL demands a lot more from head coaches and quarterbacks than any other role in the organisation. Belichick and Brady executing significant influence over the team, across such a long period of time, was so effective because of the responsibility of their respective roles, but primarily because of their simpatico.
The thousands and thousands of tiny details, individual moments, fragments of time, words spoken, steps forward in the pocket, coverage spotted in a split second, extra yards gained on special teams, the fourth-string linebacker from the practice squad that delivers when called upon: these are what build a title-winning team. Of course, they needed each other, like McCartney needed Lennon or David Chase needed James Gandolfini. Or, indeed, the other way around.
Would we have seen an extraordinary band if Brian Wilson replaced Jon or Paul? Probably, but it wouldn’t have been The Beatles. How about if Ray Liotta had taken the Tony Soprano role? He’d have been great, the show would have probably won Emmys, but it wouldn’t have fitted in the way we know, and love.
Suggesting either Belichick or Brady are better than the other, that one needs to prove something without the other, to vindicate the success they’ve already achieved, is a nonsense. If Belichick secures another Super Bowl win, with his new quarterback Mac Jones, or the player that comes after Mac, or the one after that, it will be a stunning achievement. But it doesn’t impact on what’s happened before, and it doesn’t reflect on the importance of Brady in those wins, at that time, with that team, with those moments.
As Brady rolls back to Foxboro, his new team is far stronger than the Patriots side he’ll go up against, but not demonstrably so that it’ll be a blowout. Both Brady and Belichick are similarly understated and calm when going about their business, but it’s hard to imagine the setting and environment won’t impact both to some degree. One of the most telling pieces of footage on Belichick is from the brilliant The Two Bills documentary, where he wells up, teary-eyed when revisiting the New York Giants, the team where he made his name as defensive co-ordinator.
Indeed, the defensive prowess of Belichick is perhaps the most fascinating part of what will occur on the field on Sunday. Brady will know his old coach’s tricks and idiosyncrasies like few others but, in turn, Bill knows Tom better than any other coach out there. The champs are rolling in bruised after a disappointing loss to LA — the new darlings of the NFL, for this week anyway — while the Pats are scrapping to stay relevant. It’ll be compelling viewing.
Nat correctly picked 11 winners from his 16 Week Three selections, check out his predictions for the week four matchups below.
|NFL Week Four Predictions|
|Nat’s selections in bold | UK kickoff times|
|Friday, 1 October|
|Jacksonville Jaguars vs Cincinnati Bengals, 1:20AM|
|Sunday, 3 October|
|Cleveland Browns vs Minnesota Vikings, 6:00PM|
|New York Giants vs New Orleans Saints, 6:00PM|
|Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles, 6:00PM|
|Carolina Panthers vs Dallas Cowboys, 6:00PM|
|Washington Football Team vs Atlanta Falcons, 6:00PM|
|Indianapolis Colts vs Miami Dolphins, 6:00PM|
|Houston Texans vs Buffalo Bills, 6:00PM|
|Detroit Lions vs Chicago Bears, 6:00PM|
|Seattle Seahawks vs San Francisco 49ers, 9:05PM|
|Los Angeles Rams vs Arizona Cardinals, 9:05PM|
|Pittsburgh Steelers vs Green Bay Packers, 9:25PM|
|Baltimore Ravens vs Denver Broncos, 9:25PM|
|Monday, 4 October|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs New England Patriots, 1:20AM|
|Tuesday, 5 October|
|Las Vegas Raiders vs Los Angeles Chargers, 1:15AM|
|15-fold @ 1589/1 with Betfair (Mobile)|
|15-fold @ 1589/1 with Betfair (Desktop)|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.