Paul Higham previews the most-hyped, the most-anticipated and what will be the most-watched regular season game in NFL history on Sunday, because Tom Brady is returning to the New England Patriots to face old coach Bill Belichick.

It’s a match-up we never thought we’d see during those glorious 20 years of the Brady-Belichick era where they turned the Patriots into arguably the most dominant NFL dynasty we’ve ever seen. And it’s fitting that just days after the 20th anniversary of Brady’s first NFL start he gets to celebrate with a reunion with his old team in Foxborough.

20 years, 249 games won, 17 division titles, nine Super Bowl appearances and six Super Bowl winners’ rings – we’ve never seen anything like it before and we’ll never see anything like it again. 

They were the perfect match, Belichick is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense head coach with a fine defensive mind who was meticulous in his preparation – Brady was exactly the same, he could carry out his coach’s instructions to the letter, was the first one in for practice and the last one to leave. 

Both have an insatiable appetite for success, they built up ‘The Patriot Way’ from a pretty lousy team into one feared throughout the NFL land, never beaten, never down, always looking to prove people wrong – and hardly ever out of the Super Bowl reckoning.   

Brady holds all the aces as he searches for more records

This game could not be better set up, with Brady returning with a seventh Super Bowl under his belt after his move to Tampa Bay and facing a Patriots team that was a shadow of what it was with him under centre. 

While Belichick struggled without Brady, the widely-recognised GOAT, even now as a 44-year-old, looked better than ever, and wouldn’t you just know that at Gillette Stadium on Sunday he needs just 68 passing yards to become the all-time leader in the NFL. 

He joined Drew Brees in the 80,000-yard club and he’ll surpass him as the most prolific passer ever against a Belichick defence up in New England. 

Brady’s scriptwriter has wandered off into the almost fiction category from time to time, they’re now firmly in fairytale territory as with a win on Sunday Brady would also complete the clean sweep and become just the fourth QB ever to beat all 32 teams. 

The Buccaneers are favourites for the game as well as they arrive as the Super Bowl champions and the much better team in all phases of the ball – it should be a sweet, sweet victory on the road for Brady, but he knows better than most never to count out the Patriots.

How will Brady respond to being the bad guy, can Belichick rattle him?

Brady’s seen almost everything in the league, but the one thing he’s never seen is what it’s like to be on the visiting team at Gillette Stadium, suit up in that visiting locker room, run out to boos rather than resounding cheers, and most importantly to stand on the opposite sideline to Belichick 

After all, they two formed the greatest coaching and quarterback combination of all time and hold all the major records – most impressively with 30 play-off wins they’ve got more than twice the amount of the second best. 

But Brady, despite evidence to the contrary, is in fact human, his emotions will be running high, he’ll be desperate to win this game and his team will be desperate to win it for him – that desperation can cause tension and there’s a slight risk that they could struggle early on. 

Brady has had one of his best starts to a season ever though, with 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns already, and with the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and the returning Antonio Brown he’s blessed with a Pro Bowl quality receiving group that he never enjoyed while with New England. 

Belichick’s job, then, is to somehow stop Brady finding all his weapons, which also include a certain tight end called Rob Gronkowski. Don’t forget about Gronk in all this Brady v Belichick build-up as the big man is also a legend from his time with the Patriots. 

Nobody has connected on more TD throws than Brady and Gronk – with the tight end the Patriots’ all-time leader in terms of touchdown catches (79) and play-off touchdown grabs (12). Should he be clear of a rib injury then Gronk will want to show up big time in this game. 

What will decide the Buccaneers @ Patriots game?

Belichick admitted that Brady is the toughest QB to plan for in the league, and could be the toughest ever thanks to his ability to work out a defence and pick them apart more often than not. You don’t win three league MVPs and five Super Bowl MVPs if you’re easy to plan against. 

And stopping Brady is the key, with the Bucs having the second-best passing attack but the second worst rushing attack this season, while putting up the second-most points on the board in the league.  

They’re going up against the fifth-best defence in the league which is second-best against the pass and fifth in points allowed – the Belichick defence versus Brady-led attack narrative really is the big question in this game. 

We’ve always wondered if Belichick or Brady were the main brains behind the Patriots operation, and while this game won’t give us a definitive answer it will certainly give us some grounds to lean one way or the other – although it’s not exactly a fair fight when you look at the two squads. 

Pressure on Brady has always been crucial to slowing him down, but Tampa Bay’s offensive line have kept him safe so much that he’s averaged over 300 yards a game in his 19 regular season outings with the Bucs.  

The Pats have that pass defence ranking after facing the Dolphins, Jets and Saints – none of those can match Tampa Bay’s offensive power, and none of those have Tom Brady under centre. I think Brady can figure this one out and throw three TD passes. 

New England’s rookie QB Mac Jones will no doubt be feeling the pressure, but statistically it’s the best match-up he could ask for with Tampa Bay dead last in pass defence allowing 338 passing yards per game. 

Those games have come against Dak Prescott, Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan though, so limit your expectations that Jones could somehow overshadow his predecessor. The Patriots have struggled to score points all season and Jones could well end up here with more interceptions than TD passes. 

Emotion plays such a huge part in this game, and emotions will never be higher for a regular season game that in Foxborough on Sunday, and the nerves and adrenaline will be coursing through Brady’s veins. 

If anyone can handle them, though, it’s Tom Brady, and although Belichick will have plenty of tricks up his sleeve, Brady has too many options to counter with while Belichick just doesn’t have the firepower to fully challenge his former QB. Just keeping it close would be a result for the Pats.

Tom Brady will do what Tom Brady does, however, and that’s pocket some more records while winning football games, especially at Foxborough, where he’s won 134 of the 157 starts he’s made at Gillette Stadium as a Patriot – he should make it one out of one as a Buccaneer on Sunday.

Best Bets

Buccaneers (-7.5pts) to beat the Patriots at 20/21 

Brady over 2.5 TD passes at 23/20 

Mac Jones over 1.5 interceptions & under 1.5 TD passes at 23/5 

Antonio Brown & Rob Gronkowski to score TDs at 6/1 

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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