Opinion: Tom Brady’s vintage comeback win for Bucs also cruel irony for Bill Belichick, Patriots

Maybe this is exactly the way it was destined to go down.

On the very Sunday the New England Patriots were eliminated from the NFL playoffs, Tom Brady does it again. 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit — the Bucs? — behind TB12’s most impressive game yet in his new uniform. Brady passed for a season-high 390 yards and the Bucs morphed from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde with a near-flawless second half to finish off the Falcons, 31-27.

It was vintage Brady. And almost too perfect.

I mean, even the deep ball worked. For all of the issues that Brady has had connecting on deep passes during his transition to Tampa, the game-winning points — and the first lead of the day of the Bucs — came on a 46-yard dime to Antonio Brown with 6:19 remaining. What a fine time for Brown, who played all of one game with Brady last year in New England, to score his first Bucs touchdown on a go route straight down a seam in the middle of the defense.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (Photo: Dale Zanine, USA TODAY Sports)

Go ahead. You’re allowed to feel a bit sorry for Bill Belichick.

While Brady was leading another comeback effort against a franchise that he stung for the greatest rally in Super Bowl history, his former team went down in a blaze of missed tackles in Miami. New England’s setback against the Dolphins — punctuated by Miami’s 250 rushing yards and zero TD passes, again, from Cam Newton — snapped the NFL’s longest streak of consecutive playoff berths at 11 seasons.

Funny, how that happens. Brady leaves, and the Patriots miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the year the quarterback suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. Brady comes and the Bucs (9-5) suddenly have it in them to get off the mat and win, with Sunday’s effort marking the third comeback job of the season.

“That was great poise by everybody,” Brady said afterward. “Everybody hung in there. Got off to a tough start, but found a way to win. Defense came up huge. Made some big stops. Offensively, everybody made a bunch of different plays. It was a great win for our team and we’re going to have to keep building on it.”

Listening to Brady during his Zoom conference, it sounded so familiar. After signature performances, he is always quick to deflect the credit. True, the Bucs D tightened up as the game progressed, with phenomenal linebacker Devin White blitzing to collect two sacks that destroyed the last two Falcons drives. And the contributions were widespread from the cast on offense, including a 100-yard day from Mike Evans.

But Brady, naturally, was the glue with a turnover-free performance that looked so familiar. Last year, the Bucs were that team that shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and penalties. Now, while the sluggish start on Sunday had coach Bruce Arians grumbling, they have developed the discipline that at least gives them a chance to rally. Which starts with Brady, whose 320 passing yards in the second half were most in an NFL game this season and dating at least to 1991, the most by a Bucs quarterback after halftime. 

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, right, congratulates his former assistant, Dolphins coach Brian Flores, after Sunday's game won by Miami. (Photo: Chris O'Meara, AP)

Yeah, that’s how the Patriots managed all of those comebacks and six Super Bowl victories with a certain quarterback.

Which reminds us: Now the Patriots (6-8), sans Brady, have a sputtering passing game that has tallied an NFL-low eight touchdown passes.

No, Brady wouldn’t dare pour salt on New England’s wounds. Would he?

 “As far as the Patriots, they have their own thing going,” Brady said when asked how much he’s paid attention to the Patriots. “I’ve really been focusing on how my play needs to be at quarterback. The execution I need.”

Then Brady shrugged his shoulders, indicating how he’s turned the page.

 “They’re not really an opponent of mine. Obviously, I have a lot of friends there. A lot of great relationships. But they’re focused on what they need to do, and I’ve been trying to focus on what my job is.”

Fair enough. Even though games like Sunday illustrate exactly why the Bucs lured Brady with a two-year, $50 million contract, it has hardly been a smooth transition in assembling all the pieces that include Brown, Leonard Fournette and Brady’s former Patriots co-star, Rob Gronkowski. Yet the Bucs have progressed through the growing pains. And look at them now. Brady is on the verge of playing in January again, with the Bucs poised to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

 Still, they left Sunday’s game knowing it was no recipe for winning in January — despite Brady’s track record for comebacks.

 Arians, the salty straight-shooter, loved the comeback. The Bucs scored on five consecutive possessions after taking the second-half kickoff.

“It’s what we’re capable of,” Arians said. “That’s the way we should be playing.”

Yet that was only part of the deal.

 “My comment to the team after the game was, ‘If we can play 30 minutes like that, why the hell can’t we play 60?’ It’s frustrating.”

 While the Bucs have used comebacks to achieve victories against the Chargers, Giants and now the Falcons, those opponents hardly represent the NFL’s upper echelon. They lost at Chicago when a last-minute drive fizzled with Brady losing track of the downs. And Arians pointed out they came up short by three points in losses to the Rams and Chiefs, when they dug early holes. Sunday was another reminder that even with Brady in tow, consistency is the ticket.

“We’re not going to beat the good teams playing this way,” he said. “We’ve got to play better in the first half than we did today.”

 But as the Patriots knew for so many years, at least with Brady the Bucs have a chance.

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