(Reuters) – Tom Brady walks into Gillette Stadium in a different uniform but in the familiar role as defending Super Bowl champion on Sunday, playing in New England for the first time as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
The 44-year-old returns to the New England Patriots’ home turf for the first time since he left after two era-defining decades in which he picked up six of his seven Super Bowl titles before shattering hearts among the team’s fanatic base with his departure.
After ditching Patriots blue for Buccaneers pewter – and adding another Super Bowl ring to his collection after leading Tampa to a 31-9 rout over the Kansas City Chiefs in February – his return to Gillette Stadium is shaping up for a drama-drenched Sunday Night Football clash.
“I have so much respect and appreciation for Tom,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters on Monday, batting aside questions of how and why their storied partnership fell apart.
“We’re just getting ready to compete against Tampa this week, and we’re going to keep our focus on that.”
Neutralizing the seemingly ageless, five-time Super Bowl MVP will be a stern test as Brady appears on track for another stellar run with 1,087 passing yards through the first three weeks of the NFL season – the second most of any quarterback in the National Football League (NFL).
“He looks like he’s about 25,” said Bucs head coach Bruce Arians this week, after his team’s 34-24 loss on the road to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. “He takes care of himself.”
The trip to Foxborough will be a dramatic homecoming for Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who won the Super Bowl three times in New England and signed with the Buccaneers shortly after Brady and a year after announcing his retirement.
“(For) 98% of these guys it’s just another game,” said Arians. “But for two of them it’s huge. It’s the biggest story nationally and that’s all they’ll hear about all week but that ain’t got a damn thing to do with their job.
“Just get yourself prepared to play and beat the Patriots and let all the hoopla take care of itself.”
Brady told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that his return would be “really fun”.
“I’ve played more games in that stadium than anybody,” he said.
Facing off against him is rookie quarterback Mac Jones, a first-round pick who was a few months shy of his second birthday when the Patriots selected Brady with the 199th overall.
Jones earned widespread praise for his preseason performance but suffered a disappointing 28-13 loss on Sunday to the New Orleans Saints, in which he threw a trio of interceptions.
Jones’ completion percentage slipped from a rock-solid 74.4 in Week 1 to 58.8 in Week 3, but told reporters he was determined to turn around the team’s 1-2 start.
“Obviously, no one likes to lose here, and the Patriots have done nothing but win for a long time,” said Jones.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Toby Davis)