From the minute we found out Tom Brady was going to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it didn’t take long to figure out that the then-six-time Super Bowl champion would be making his return to Foxborough at some point during the 2021 regular season. It was at that time where we were able to fantasize about how this duel for the ages would ultimately unfold and how it would look. How would Brady fare with the Buccaneers? Would Bill Belichick be able to find a quarterback and keep the dynasty in New England afloat?

Now that we’re roughly 18 months separated from Brady’s decision and this epic matchup is next up on the schedule, the tables couldn’t be leaned more heavily towards No. 12. 

Not only will Brady be walking into Gillette Stadium on Sunday night as a defending Super Bowl champion who threw 50 touchdowns (including playoffs) a season ago, but he’ll be facing a Belichick-led Patriots team still trying to find itself. 

In truth, this matchup couldn’t be more ill-timed for Belichick in his hopes of getting the better of his former quarterback in what very well could be their lone head-to-head. 

Through three weeks, a myriad of issues have bubbled to the surface with the Patriots, who’ve stumbled to a 1-2 record. Their offensive line — a unit that was set to be a key strength entering the season — has struggled to keep rookie Mac Jones upright, which has drastically impacted the offense’s efficiency. When under pressure, Jones has completed just 50% of his throws at 4.5 yards per attempt. In a clean pocket, he’s completing nearly 75% of his passes for a 6.8 yards per attempt average. 

Not only has the protection in front of Jones been spotty to start to the year, but the weapons on offense — particularly at the tight end spot — have yet to jell within Josh McDaniels’ system. Through three games, both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — who the Patriots committed $87.5 million ($56.25 million guaranteed) to this offseason — have combined for just 20 catches and 183 yards. The offense also just lost team captain James White — a key outlet for Jones out of the backfield — for the foreseeable future due to a hip injury suffered in Week 3. 

Meanwhile, the defense has played well at times and has only allowed 17 points per game through three weeks. That said, they have struggled to get off the field in critical situations. (For example, New Orleans’ 75-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive in Week 3.) Now, they’ll be tasked with trying to stop a Buccaneers offense led by Brady, who is averaging 362.3 passing yards per game on a 68.8 completion percentage to start the year. This is by far the best unit they’ve faced this season and quite possibly will all year. 

This game also comes on the heels of a demoralizing home loss to the New Orleans Saints during which New England had miscues in all three phases. It’s a team whose confidence will hardly be at an all-time high. 

The Patriots have a ton of new and young faces who were injected into this roster this offseason, and they are still trying to find their way. And that’s totally fine and probably should have been expected. As it relates to possibly winning this game, however, Belichick probably wishes it came a bit later in the year so his club had a bit more time to marinate. 

Ready or not, though, here comes Tom Brady. 

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