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INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 26: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the tunnel before player introductions before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Five questions into his Thursday press conference, Patriots linebacker Matt Judon was asked a sixth straight related to the subject that has dominated regional discourse since the NFL schedule was released in the spring.

On the second-to-last day of player availability before Sunday night’s long-awaited return of Tom Brady to Gillette Stadium, Judon lowered his head, smiled and, as part of an organization where players generally don’t speak for each other, probably spoke for many of his teammates.

Especially those like himself who’ve never played with Brady.

“Bro,” said Judon, who’s only shared the same field as Brady while playing on a physical Baltimore Ravens defense known for treating opponents more rudely than reverentially. “He’s the next quarterback we’ve got to play. They also got two other quarterbacks on the roster. I know he was in this building for a long time, and what he’s done can never be taken away from the game of football and what he did.”

Meanwhile, in Tampa, Brady, struggling to be heard through his hoarseness, expectedly sounded like a man on a mission; not a sentimental journey.

“I have nothing but incredible thoughts, memories, emotions towards all the kind of football experiences I’ve had, and that’s obviously one that was the longest,” Brady said. “I still have a lot of great friends there, but they know I want to kick their butt this week. So they’ll know exactly how I’m feeling once I’m out there.”

And at that time, the roughly 70,000 in house at Brady’s 20-year football home — many of whom splurged by spending $1,100 or more per seat — will surely let him know exactly how they feel. Anything short of a roaring pregame ovation would be disappointing.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 09: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers waves to fans after defeating the Dallas Cowboys 31-29 at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

TAMPA, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 09: Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers waves to fans after defeating the Dallas Cowboys 31-29 at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Then, after a months-long build-up fueled by talk of Brady and Belichick, a breakup and soon-to-be bestseller, we will finally get to see a game.

An early October, Week 4-of-18 game at that.

Not that talk of legacies will cease around midnight, when either the highly-favored Bucs close out a third win or the Pats celebrate a second. Expect it to continue for days. Maybe weeks and months. So long, at least, as listener and caller interest remains strong.

But while the principals can gain a certain satisfaction from winning this game against that team on this night, there are neither rings nor a parade — by boat or duck boat — riding on the outcome.

As the seventh defending Super Bowl champ to return every starter on offense and defense, the Bucs have a greater goal long-term. They’re vying to become the first NFL team to capture back-to-back titles since the 2003-04 Patriots.

And these 2021 Pats? A main and more immediate objective was summed up at the week’s outset by 14th-year vet, 11-time team co-captain Matthew Slater.

“I think this week the New England Patriots need to focus on the New England Patriots, and the things we need to do to start playing better football, consistent football, competitive football,” Slater said Monday, following a 28-13 loss to the Saints.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots passes the ball while under pressure from Carl Granderson #96 of the New Orleans Saints during the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots passes the ball while under pressure from Carl Granderson #96 of the New Orleans Saints during the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The defeat leaves the Patriots 0-2 at home for the first time since home was Foxboro Stadium in 2000. After three interceptions vs. New Orleans, they now own a minus-4 turnover differential at Gillette.

What’s more, after last year’s Pats committed a league-low 3.9 penalties per game (62), this year’s group was guilty of 18 accepted infractions the first three weeks for an average of 6.0. Mix in kicks out of bounds; communication breakdowns in pass protection and coverages; and critical conversions by opponents; and what we’ve seen thus far looks little like what we watched for so long.

“I always try to think of things like, there’s no such thing as ‘uncharacteristic of the Patriots.’ Like, this is a new team,” says Devin McCourty, another 11th-year co-captain. “What guys and teams have done in the past, it really makes no difference to this team because those guys that were doing those things, they’re not here playing right now. So it’s who we are right now.

“It’s what we’ve put out there. So we better have a sense of urgency to fix those things. Especially the things that the other team, they’re not doing anything and we’re already killing ourselves before the play. So those are the things that we just can’t have Sunday night. It’s a great time to get those things going, against a team like this, because it’ll give us confidence going forward and it’ll show that we can do it.”

Along with Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Bolden, Slater and McCourty are the last of the Patriots’ players who were part of the franchise’s transition from its first decade as a dynasty to its second.

Slater was drafted amid the hangover of the Super Bowl LXII loss to the Giants and debuted in the infamous 2008 opener, when Brady’s ninth season was ended by a knee injury. McCourty was the team’s first pick after the embarrassing conclusion to a trying 2009 — a 33-14 Wild Card rout by the Ravens.

Each went on to play in five Super Bowls, winning three. Hightower joined them in 2012, as a first-round choice destined to earn the monicker, “Mr. February,” for his clutch performances in the three Super Bowl wins. Bolden entered the NFL at the same time, although he missed out on Super Bowl LIII during a one-year hiatus as a Dolphin.

All of them, like fellow three-time champ and injured running back James White, are in the final year of their contracts. It’s still early this season. But it’s getting late.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots sits on the bench after the loss to the New Orleans Saints after the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 26: Quarterback Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots sits on the bench after the loss to the New Orleans Saints after the game at Gillette Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Too late, in reality, for their team to wait any longer to put forth a performance that re-defines who they are and re-directs where might be headed the rest of 2021.

Obviously, beating the Bucs would be a great start. And to oddsmakers and wagerers alike, a stunning one.

Despite losing at the Rams last week, Brady’s rarely if ever looked better. He’s already passed for 1,000-plus yards and 10 touchdowns and leads his talented offense to 34.3 point per game — nearly doubling up the Pats’ output (18.0 points per game) to date.

Defensively, Tampa Bay surrenders a meager 63.7 rushing yards a game and 3.1 yards a carry. Granted, its banged-up secondary is struggling, while its vaunted pass rush has just three sacks. But given the constant pressure Mac Jones faced in his first three pro starts, the Bucs’ deeply talented front seven undoubtedly sees tonight as a chance to get right and ‘get home’ to the quarterback.

All that said, as Judon told us, it’s not like the Patriots should fear Brady and the Buccaneers. And as Slater said, a main focus should be directed inward. Play well — beginning by eliminating unforced errors — and they give themselves a chance.

This evening, yes. The rest of the season, absolutely.

  • True Sign of Respect

    Throughout the 2020 season, when the Bucs went 7-5 before hitting their stride with eight straight victories, they played in either empty stadiums or before relatively small crowds due to COVID-19 restrictions. Of course, they also played Super Bowl LV on their home turf in Tampa.

    This season, their first two games were at home. So, according to FOX Sports analyst Troy Aikman, Brady never had to worry about using a silent count as a Buccaneer until last weekend’s visit to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

    As noted, Brady sounded terrible in his mid-week meeting with media. ESPN’s Jenna Laine reported that Brady was left hoarse after practicing with loud crowd noise blaring as the Bucs prepared to be play before a presumed hostile crowd for the second straight week.

    “I’ve had a few of these days,” a raspy Brady said. “I don’t know what the deal is, so I got to try and figure this out. I said my throat’s more tired than my arm. Imagine that.”

    No doubt the current playing residents of One Patriots Place would appreciate it if fans turn from welcoming back Brady to then show their full-throated passion in a way that makes it hard for him to be heard.

    Being the legendary competitor he is, Brady would expect nothing less.

  • Inside The Numbers

    — Since the start of 2019, only the Steelers (67) and Patriots (63) forced more turnovers than Tampa Bay’s 57 takeaways. Neither has scored more off turnovers than the Bucs’ 258 points.

    — During the 2020-21 seasons, the Buccaneers have scored touchdowns on a league-high 93 percent (52-for-75) of red-zone opportunities. The Patriots’ TD rate is 50% (28-for-56), including 2-for-8 this season.

    — According to NextGen Stats, by way of the Buccaneers.com website, Brady has thrown passes to open targets (at least three yards of separation from the nearest defender) 53.2% of the time this year. Mainly, his throws have been short-to-intermediate, with an average of 8.0 air yards per attempt (2oth in the NFL) and one completion longer than 32 yards.

    — Per Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus, the Pats’ defense has allowed a league-low passer rating of 30.3 on passes of 10-plus yards vs. Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson and Jameis Winston.

    — Lastly, according to ESPN Stats & Information, as pointed out by Bill Barnwell, Mac Jones was 12-of-16 for 108 yards when he released passes vs. the Saints in 2.5 seconds or less. When holding on longer, he went 18-for-35 for 162 yards. Also, on throws of 16-plus air yards, he was 3-of-18.