FOXBORO, Mass. – It was impossible to miss throughout the week. Tom Brady’s return to New England captivated the sports world. The quarterback’s return to Gillette Stadium to take on Bill Belichick and the Patriots was one of the biggest regular-season matchups perhaps ever.
You couldn’t avoid it on your radio or television. On Sunday night, the atmosphere was palpable. As soon as Brady jogged on the field at 7:30 p.m., the crowd went crazy. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were introduced at 8:11 p.m., it took a matter of seconds before, “Brady! Brady! Brady!” chants to fill the crisp Foxboro air.
You had Brady signs, jerseys and a pregame video montage – celebrating the future Hall-of-Famer and his six Super Bowl banners that hung there in the stadium. The quarterback even set the NFL’s all-time passing record in the first quarter. That brought about another video message about Brady on the scoreboard for everyone to see.
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Then the game started and Mac Jones answered the call against the greatest quarterback of all time.
Despite the pressure, the rookie quarterback persevered. Despite the constant reminders of Brady during the weeks and during Sunday night’s marquee matchup, Jones never wavered. He didn’t look nervous, out of place or even out of his league in the Patriots 19-17 loss.
Sunday night saw another Brady fourth-quarter comeback win in the stadium he essentially built over 20 years. Nevertheless, when so many people were focused on the Patriots past quarterback, the team’s future quarterback emerged as a bright spot under bright lights.
The moment wasn’t too big for Mac Jones on Sunday. Instead, the 2021 first-round pick reinforced the notion that the Patriots have found their franchise quarterback. For a team that fell to 1-3 and watched their former quarterback, coming off a Super Bowl title, leave victorious, the Patriots should feel confident about the future of their franchise.
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They might have lost Tom Brady, but the Patriots gained Mac Jones. Even though they lost, that still feels like a win.
“He’s ready for everything that’s coming his way,” said Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne. “… The way he’s handling situations like that, playing the Jets or whoever it may be, it’s the same quarterback. He has the same mindset. He looks like a baby Tom. That’s my opinion. It’s good to see his growth.”
For twenty years, when Brady was under center, it never felt like the Patriots were out of the game. When he was on the field, there was always a chance of something special happening. In the biggest moments, Brady found a way. That story started back in 2001 and was emphasized when the Patriots were trailing 28-3 to the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.
That was seen on Sunday night. Every time the Patriots led, Brady drove the Buccaneers downfield and took back the lead. It was the same old story from this quarterback and nobody inside Gillette Stadium was surprised. What was surprising, however, was that Jones matched Brady in the fourth quarter. The quarterback showed guts even when things looked like they should fall apart.
With Jones, it still felt like the Patriots had a chance.
The Patriots couldn’t run the ball on Sunday – they gained -1 yard on eight carries. They also struggled to pass protect – Jones was hit 12 times and sacked four times. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially when you are starting a rookie quarterback. No one would’ve been surprised if Jones wilted. He was hit hard on several occasions. Instead, the 23-year-old instilled confidence in his teammates as he fought back.
“He’s got some guts,” said David Andrews. “It’s an honor to play with a guy like that… He battles and he’s a tough kid.”
The Buccaneers took a 13-7 lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter. Jones responded by completing 7-of-7 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in the next drive.
When Brady led the Bucs to another field goal to take a 16-14 lead, with 7:58 remaining, it was similar. Jones threw three completions, including a 21-yard strike to Jakobi Meyers, who then threw for his own 30-yard gain on the next play. That set up a Nick Folk field goal and the Pats were back up, 17-16, with 7:58 to go. That drive saw Jones throw an incomplete pass after 19-straight completions. According to ESPN, that’s the longest streak by a rookie over the last 40 seasons.
When Brady’s Bucs drove down and kicked another field goal and led, 17-14, with 1:57 left, Jones took the field one last time. His teammates were confident.
“We’re not worried about the kid,” said Devin McCourty. “…He has everybody’s trust in the locker room… There was no doubt when he took the field that they were going to drive down and give us a shot.”
The drive wasn’t perfect – Hunter Henry was flagged for a false start – but Jones three completions put the Patriots at the 37-yard line with 55 seconds left in the game. Folk’s missed 56-yard attempt put an end to Jones’ comeback win, but the effort left an impression.
“Just like I thought he would be, calm and cool,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of Jones. “Played his tail off. Yeah, he gave his team a chance to win.”
Added Bill Belichick, “Mac fought hard and made a lot of plays for us.”
“Mac played a hell of a game,” said Matt Judon.
“He did a great job,” said Brady.
When the clock hit zero, Brady embraced Jones on the field. The rookie threw for a career-high 275 yards to go with a career-high two touchdowns. Brady threw for a season-low 269 yards with no touchdowns, but came away with the win.
“He just told me to keep my head up and keep working,” said Jones.
Brady was one of the last players on the field on Sunday. In his last moments on the field, he waved and embraced the crowd who adored him for 20 years and clearly and still does. Then the 42-year-old walked into a dark tunnel by the south end zone to go into the bowels of Gillette Stadium – perhaps for the final time in his historic career.
With Brady gone, it’s the end of an era in New England. With Mac Jones, it’s the beginning of a new one.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Patriots lost to Bucs, Tom Brady, but Mac Jones looks like the future