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New England Patriots

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 18: Head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots congratulate each other after the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Patriots defeated the Colts 34-27. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick may have unknowingly foreshadowed his views on Sunday’s heavily-hyped game against the Buccaneers back at the start of training camp, when he said “a big part of football is the actual football part of it.”

At the time, Belichick was speaking about the difference between padded and non-padded practices. But removed from the original context, those words apply here as well. For all of the external storylines that will play out at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, there’s still a football game to be played, the same as the other 271 games that will take place this year.

With any football game comes the X’s and O’s matchups. Tampa’s talent and depth across the board will force Belichick and his coaching staff to be creative when it comes to game planning. The Patriots will need a near-perfect performance across the board to beat the first defending Super Bowl champion in the modern era to return all 22 starters, but what are the most crucial spots to focus on? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Patriots tight ends vs. Buccaneers linebackers

    As dominant as the Buccaneers’ defensive front is, they’ve had their problems on the back end. Tampa is allowing a league-worst 338.3 passing yards per game so far this year.

    Protecting Mac Jones is paramount, and probably could have been a key matchup of its own, but there are things the Patriots can do to help keep Jones upright besides just ‘blocking better’ against one of the league’s best pass rush units. As they often did when Tom Brady was here, utilizing a quick passing game with Jones getting the ball out of his hands within three seconds can turn the rookie quarterback into his own best pass protector.

    When it comes to the short and intermediate passing game, Tampa can be particularly susceptible to tight ends. Through three games, they’ve allowed the second-most catches and 10th-most yards to opposing tight ends. Just last week, Tyler Higbee got them for five catches, 40 yards, and a score.

    It hasn’t quite been the electric start many were expected from the Patriots’ free agent tight ends. Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry have combined for 20 catches and 183 yards, which rank 13th and 11th in the NFL respectively. If there was a time to try to jumpstart them with heavy involvement in the game plan, Sunday is it.

  • When Tampa has the ball: Buccaneers receivers vs. Devin McCourty

    Through three games, the Bucs are averaging 11.7 drives per game – tied for the third-most in the NFL. The more drives a team has, the more chances they have to score, and the larger their margin for error. Playing fast and hitting on big plays is what allows a team to have more drives in a given game. The Bucs also have the third-shortest average drive time, at 2:20.

    Fully ‘stopping’ Tom Brady isn’t going to happen. Patriots fans know that as well as anybody. What Belichick’s defense needs to do is try and slow down Tampa’s offense as much as possible, and limit the number of chances they have in the game.

    Forcing the Buccaneers into longer drives means limiting big plays. That puts Devin McCourty in the spotlight, as the last line of the Patriots’ defense. He needs to prevent Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Rob Gronkowski (if he plays) from getting open over the top, and make any tackles if and when Buccaneers players break into the third level.

     

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Tom Brady

    The majority of this past week has been spent talking about the off-field drama between Belichick and Brady, but let’s look at this through a football lens. On Sunday night, the greatest quarterback of all time will face off against arguably the best defensive mind the NFL has ever seen, in what will most likely be their only head-to-head meeting.

    What kind of game plan will Belichick have waiting for Brady? Will it be something we’ve seen before from Patriots opponents in the past? Or is there something Belichick picked up in 20 years working with Brady that he knows he can exploit that nobody else ever noticed?

    Debates about why Brady truly left New England, whose fault it was, etc. will continue beyond Sunday’s game. But there’s only one chance to watch these two legends of the game really go at it. Keep that in mind during the game on Sunday.