It’s been a dramatic week for Patriots fans. This game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a game once thought impossible for many years by fans. Tom Brady, after spending 20 years in Foxboro as the signal-caller for the Pats offense, is making his return home as an opponent. Along with another Patriots legend in tight end Rob Gronkowski.

This game is a pinnacle moment in the “Brady or Belichick?” debate. For a couple of years now fans of the NFL have discussed who is more responsible for the greatest dynasty in all of sports. I maintain that it is still 50-50, but I think the popular opinion is now more TB12 than Bill Belichick. But let’s put that aside. I already discussed how high the emotions are for this game earlier in the week. Now let’s discuss the game itself.

The Patriots are coming off a brutal 28-13 loss against the Saints. A game where they were just smothered offensively and worn out defensively. The Josh McDaniels offense wasn’t able to muster much of anything until the fourth quarter. By the time they got the ball rolling, the defense just couldn’t stop a nosebleed. Mac Jones got pummeled, throwing his first three picks in the process. The matchup doesn’t get any easier against the Tampa Bay defense, with their pass rush being a strength. But tackle Trent Brown should make his return in this game. It’s a big opportunity for the rookie quarterback. The stakes haven’t been higher in his young career. If he pulls out a win here? His confidence should be soaring in the coming weeks. So without further delay, set it up, Bailey! Let’s get this preview underway.

Three Keys to The Game

New England Patriots news 9/16/21 - - Pats Pulpit

Key #1: Really Protecting Mac Jones

Mac Jones is getting killed back there. A consistent element through three weeks of Patriots football is that the pass protection has not been ideal. He was hit 11 times and sacked twice last week. One of his interceptions was directly related to him getting decked and the ball floating to an unintended target. Trent Brown may be returning, but he’ll be facing Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquille Barrett this week. As for the interior line; Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. It certainly doesn’t get any easier against the defending champs. But if they can protect their rookie quarterback? The Bucs are on pace to have the worst defense in NFL history as far as yardage allowed. If Mac can be protected good things will happen.

Key #2: Jonnu Smith Has to Catch the Ball

Tight end Jonnu Smith was one of the big free-agent acquisitions this off-season. He was paid handsomely to help fix the Pats’ lowest-ranked tight-end production in 2020. Last week he was more of a detriment than an asset. Smith was targeted six times and only caught one pass. The other five were dropped or bobbled and given to the Saints for a free touchdown. Smith is an amazing talent. But he’s gotta bring those passes in. I have faith that he’ll turn it around because he’s going to have to. Expect McDaniels to throw Smith some balls early just to get his confidence going again.

Key #3: Keeping Up With Tampa’s Weapons

This is probably Tom Brady’s most stacked offense in his entire career. He’s throwing passes to Gronk, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and O.J. Howard. Along with a fantastic offensive line. Without Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots’ secondary has their hands full. The Bucs are gonna score points. Of that, I have no doubt. So the Pats defense is just going to have to limit those opportunities. This game definitely delivers more pressure on the offense to keep up, but the defense can’t let Tampa drop 50 on their head and expect to win.

X-Factor: J.J. Taylor

Former Arizona running back J.J. Taylor projected as New England Patriots'  2021 'breakout star' - Arizona Desert Swarm

With James White going down with a season-ending hip injury, somebody has to be Jones’s security blanket in the flats. There’s a good chance J.J. Taylor gets the opportunity to show his talent as a third-down back. The second-year player from Arizona is a 5’6 waterbug. He has an incredible burst and has surprising power as a ball carrier. Now he can show if he can catch the football. The Patriots are a little thin at that spot and will need a quick solution. It would surely be nice if that solution is already on the roster. I expect Taylor to get a shot to prove himself worthy and possibly carve out a permanent role for himself in this offense.

Closing Thoughts

Who is more responsible for the Patriots' success, Brady or Belichick? -  The Boston Globe

As we talked about previously, I never thought I’d be seeing my childhood hero in Tom Brady playing against my favorite team. It was all peaches and cream the way I had dreamt it in my head. But alas, some things just don’t work out as smoothly as we would imagine them to. Instead, we get to see a serious masterclass on Sunday Night Football. It’s not just juicy drama, it’s great football. Well, the potential to be great football. Belichick is the coach that knows Brady like no one else. Just like Brady is the quarterback that knows a Belichick defense better than everybody else. 20 years together will really make you get to know a person.

When it comes down to making a prediction, I really don’t want to. My favorite player ever going up against my favorite team doesn’t make this an easy call. But when you compare the two teams; the choice is obvious on paper. The Patriots and Bucs will be close going into halftime. Say a 14-10 lead for Tampa. But the Pats won’t be able to keep up offensively. Brady’s gang will drop three straight touchdowns and we’ll score in garbage time. I hope I’m proven wrong. But through three weeks, the only thing that will keep the Pats in the game with the Bucs is stupid mistakes from them. Which isn’t very likely. We know all too well how smart their quarterback is.

Final Score: 38-17, Tampa Bay (Patriots fall to 1-3)

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