Filling the void left by the greatest quarterback of all-time is no small feat. But where there’s a Bill, there’s a way.
Laughably unoriginal puns aside, our latest Madden 20 sim (full game broadcast available here)—a primetime affair with in-game commentary provided by WEEI hosts Jermaine Wiggins (who knows a thing or two about winning Super Bowls) and Nick “Fitzy” Stevens—gave us a lot to unpack. In their haste, the NFL schedule-makers deprived us of the opportunity to see Bucs newcomer Tom Brady face his former team this season, so at RADIO.COM, we took matters into our own hands. In arranging this monumental, top-of-the-food-chain matchup of biblical proportion, we set out to answer once and for all, was New England’s decades-long dynasty more a product of Bill Belichick’s immense football savvy or the handiwork of his exceptionally clutch, phenomenally gifted franchise quarterback?
One game, particularly a computer-simulated one, won’t end that debate. But on Tuesday night, the hoodie stood tallest. For the better part of three quarters, Brady was consistently outfoxed by his former coach as the Patriots, guided by the impressively sure-handed play of first-year starter Jarett Stidham (273 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on 21-of-34 passing), jumped out to a commanding 20-0, first-half lead. But as Matt Ryan and others who have suffered similar fates would attest, you can never get too comfortable with Brady on the opposite bench. The final period unquestionably belonged to TB12, but unlike so many of Brady’s memorable fourth-quarter comebacks over the years, this one fell just a tad short.
Staring down the team he led to six Lombardi Trophies, each Super Bowl triumph seemingly more epic than the last, Brady spent the majority of his Foxboro return running for his 42-year-old life, absorbing five sacks behind Tampa Bay’s patchwork offensive line. Despite a robust final stat line (391 yards, two touchdowns on 37-of-48 passing), the 20-year vet looked his age for long stretches, often flummoxed by the play of New England’s stout secondary (second-fewest yards allowed last season).
While Mike Evans (4-56-0) was largely held in check by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, Chris Godwin played like a man possessed, corralling a team-high 10 grabs for 135 yards including a five-yard touchdown strike from Brady. Godwin, who pivoted from 12 to No. 14 this offseason to accommodate his new, soon-to-be Hall-of-Fame quarterback, punched in a two-point conversion for good measure, narrowing the Patriots’ lead to three (20-17) with a hair under five minutes to go in regulation. The former Penn State Nittany Lion had a second touchdown wiped from the record thanks to a holding flag on left tackle Donovan Smith during the third quarter.
Rob Gronkowski, who defected to Tampa following a one-year “retirement,” experienced a mixed bag in his return to Gillette Stadium. The five-time Pro Bowler collected eight catches for a more-than-respectable 75 receiving yards, but also coughed up a fumble (linebacker Dont’a Hightower was the one to jar it loose), resulting in a costly turnover late in the first half.
With Tampa Bay threatening, Stidham provided some late-game heroics of his own, sinking the Bucs’ ship by leading an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown march that bled three minutes off the clock. The heir to Gronk’s tight-end throne, Devin Asiasi (5-75-1), delivered the final nail in Tampa’s coffin, stretching New England’s lead to 10 with 1:55 remaining. That was enough time for Brady to add a second touchdown to his ledger (Scotty Miller’s four-yarder cut it to 27-24), but not enough to complete the comeback as Mohamed Sanu clinched the victory for New England by gathering Matt Gay’s onside kick with just 14 seconds to kill.
Chris Simms expressed recently that the Bucs’ flawed secondary could prevent Tampa Bay, for all its on-paper talent, from becoming a true Super Bowl contender. Those words proved prophetic as veteran Julian Edelman unleashed his usual slot destruction on Tampa, torching the visitors for 109 yards and a touchdown in the winning effort. Sony Michel was a similar thorn in the Bucs’ side, feasting to the tune of 95 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries (five yards per attempt).
There’s only one team Brady has yet to beat on his illustrious NFL journey. And thanks to the inspired play of Stidham and his Patriots teammates Tuesday night, that’s still the case.