This is what it’s come to, the buildup to Sunday night’s showdown between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers featuring ample headlines – provided by Tom Brady’s father, his trainer (Alex Guerrero) and an upcoming book about the Patriots dynasty by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, among other sources – suggesting why Brady and his longtime coach, Bill Belichick, broke up following the 2019 NFL season.
Neither TB12 nor BB have said much, though Belichick offered in a radio interview this week, “We weren’t as good an option as Tampa,” regarding Brady’s choice to jump to the Buccaneers last year.
Apparently that’s how we got here, at least in part? Yet it’s still hard to believe this divorce actually occurred.
For two decades, Brady and Belichick were a dynamic football power couple – alternately admired as underdogs leading a nascent dynasty that first planted its flag in Super Bowl 36, just a few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but later regarded as a diabolical duo by legions of NFL fans west of Connecticut as they reached nine Super Bowls and won six – with shady tactics often providing a backdrop.
So, as Brady goes back to Gillette Stadium as a visitor for the first time, let’s reflect on what he and Belichick accomplished together over 20 years in Foxborough by ranking the Patriots teams they shared from worst to best:
20. 2000 Patriots
Belichick’s first year in New England, and still the only time his team finished last in the AFC East. Also Brady’s first year in New England – he arrived oh so quietly with the 199th selection of that year’s draft – and he threw three passes in mop-up duty behind then-face-of-the-franchise Drew Bledsoe.
19. 2008 Patriots
They didn’t reach postseason despite going 11-5. But this was among Belichick’s most masterful coaching performances – mainly because he lost reigning league MVP Brady to torn knee ligaments in the first quarter of the season opener.
18. 2002 Patriots
This group fell flat coming off its first Super Bowl title. The Pats, Dolphins and Jets all finished 9-7, but New York – despite a 2-5 start that sparked coach Herm Edwards’ memorable “You play to win the game” rant – won the AFC East based on tiebreakers while New England and Miami failed to qualify for the playoffs. Brady did toss a league-leading 28 TD passes in his second year as the starter – even as some wondered if he and his team was merely a flash in the pan.
17. 2005 Patriots
Most teams would love to go 10-6, win a division crown and reach the second round of the playoffs. But these Patriots were aiming to be the first team to pull off a Super Bowl three-peat, a feat derailed by numerous injuries. Brady led the NFL in passing yards (4,110) for the first time, but also suffered his first playoff loss – 27-13 at Denver in a game best remembered for TE Ben Watson running down Broncos CB Champ Bailey and knocking him out of bounds shy of a TD after he returned a Brady INT 101 yards.
16. 2009 Patriots
Most teams would love to go 10-6 and win a division crown – the first of a league record 11 in a row. But this New England edition, which lost All-Pro WR Wes Welker to a torn ACL in Week 17, was throttled in its next game – a 33-14 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens during the wild-card round at Foxborough. Brady’s 13 INTs that season, not including three more in the loss to Baltimore, are the most he’s thrown in the past 16 seasons.
15. 2013 Patriots
Stellar by any other franchise’s standards – 12-4, AFC East champs, AFC title game appearance – but meh relative to New England’s dynasty. Brady’s season (25 TD passes, 87.3 QB rating) was also lackluster compared to his usual output. Broncos QB Peyton Manning shredded them with the Super Bowl berth at stake.
14. 2019 Patriots
The final ride of the Brady-Belichick era, this team went 8-0 in the first half of the season – though its early dominance was owed to a top-ranked defense that seemed destined to be one of the greatest in league history. But even as the D regressed down the stretch, Brady’s lack of offensive weaponry became the emergent narrative in a season when he passed for 4,057 yards and 24 TDs – figures well shy of his standard output during his second decade in New England. He threw for 209 yards and an INT in his final game for the Patriots, a 20-13 wild-card round upset loss to the Tennessee Titans.
13. 2010 Patriots
Belichick recalibrated the offense, trading WR Randy Moss early in the season as the passing attack diversified around Welker, WR Deion Branch, who was reacquired from the Seattle Seahawks, and rookie TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It worked so well, Brady won his second MVP award, topping the NFL with 36 TD passes (against 4 INTs) and a 111.0 passer rating for a team that went 14-2. However it also went one-and-done in the playoffs, the New York Jets handing them a stunning 28-21 loss at Gillette while sacking Brady five times.
12. 2006 Patriots
The last time they’d score fewer than 400 points with Brady at the helm, New England really opened up its offensive attack the following season. But it was a dynasty in transition at this juncture after saying goodbye to mainstays like OLB Willie McGinest, K Adam Vinatieri and Branch, the Super Bowl 39 MVP. Still, the Patriots held a 21-3 advantage over Manning’s Colts in the AFC championship game, but New England collapsed in the second half – Brady’s interception at the Indianapolis 35-yard line inside the final minute sealing his team’s 38-34 defeat.
11. 2015 Patriots
They won their first 10 games before limping to a 12-4 finish. A pass-heavy offense was reliant on Brady, who paced the NFL with 36 TD passes. But there wasn’t enough left in the tank as he lost his final matchup with Manning, a 20-18 defeat in the AFC championship game. Brady had to throw 56 passes that day, was picked off twice and brutalized by Denver’s “No Fly Zone” defense, which sacked him four times.
10. 2012 Patriots
They steamrolled the opposition, outscoring opponents by a collective 226 points – a figure surpassed only by the 16-0 2007 team in franchise annals – and racked up an NFL-record 444 first downs. Brady was excellent (4,827 yards and 34 TDs in the regular season) while piloting an offense that led the league in yards and points. But he was picked off twice as New England got zapped 28-13 in the AFC title game by a Ravens team that caught playoff lightning in a bottle on its way to winning Super Bowl 47.
9. 2017 Patriots
The defending champions overcame a 2-2 start before their repeat bid fell just short with a 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in a memorable Super Bowl 52, when Brady threw for a Super Sunday record 505 yards. His third MVP season was one of his best individual efforts as he led the league in passing yards (4,577) despite the loss of WR Julian Edelman to a preseason knee injury. However history will show New England barely survived Jacksonville in the AFC title game before an utter defensive collapse, exacerbated by Belichick’s controversial decision to effectively bench starting CB Malcolm Butler, undermined them against the Eagles.
8. 2018 Patriots
The résumé is pretty thin as it pertains to other dynastic New England entries, Brady and CB Stephon Gilmore the only Pro Bowlers that year. Among Belichick’s teams, only the 2001 Patriots, New England’s initial titlists, had as few wins (11) among those reaching the Super stage. A challenging season was plagued by suspensions of WRs Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon and the seeming decline of Gronkowski. Yet Gronk and game MVP Edelman came up big in Super Bowl 53, Brady’s least impressive Super Sunday performance (262 yards passing, 1 INT), but one that earned him a sixth and final ring with Belichick.
7. 2001 Patriots
The magic carpet ride began here. Brady went 11-3 while supplanting injured Bledsoe, helping the team overcome an 0-2 start to win the division and what would become a near-annual first-round postseason bye. Some will forever argue that their “Tuck Rule” divisional playoff win over the Oakland Raiders confers an asterisk. Yet many forget that Bledsoe, not a year after signing a 10-year, $103 million contract, cemented victory in the AFC championship game at Pittsburgh when Brady couldn’t continue due to a knee injury. The rest, of course, is history – though no one presumed the Patriots were embarking on years of dominance even after dispatching the heavily favored “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams courtesy of masterful defensive game-planning by Belichick and one of Vinatieri’s signature field goals to cap a 20-17 Super Bowl 36 victory. Brady earned his first Super Bowl MVP trophy after engineering the game-winning drive capped by Vinatieri’s 48-yarder.
6. 2011 Patriots
This was probably Brady’s second-best season personally (5,235 passing yards, 39 TDs), though Aaron Rodgers beat him out for MVP honors. Gronkowski came into his own, leading the league with 17 TD grabs and setting a then-record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,327), as he and Hernandez anchored an offense that relied on double-tight looks. It must be noted that New England was lucky to escape Baltimore in the AFC title round, getting help from Ravens WR Lee Evans and K Billy Cundiff. Yet it’s also worth wondering how a healthy Gronk, who suffered a high ankle sprain against Baltimore, might have altered the Super Bowl 46 loss to the New York Giants. Far from 100%, he managed just two catches for 26 yards yet nearly corralled a Hail Mary to win a game after which Brady’s wife, Gisele Bündchen, steamed “My husband cannot (expletive) throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time,” following a day when Welker and others struggled to reel in their targets.
5. 2003 Patriots
The “Patriot Way” began coming into focus with Belichicks’ stunning release of popular S Lawyer Milloy before the start of the regular season. He quickly signed with the AFC East rival Bills, who whacked the Patriots 31-0 on opening day. However the law had been laid down, and the Patriots adapted, capping a 12-game winning streak to end the regular season with a mirror image 31-0 beatdown of Buffalo. Yet New England’s 14-2 record and a defense that allowed the league’s fewest points were not necessarily indicative of true dominance, as the team displayed a pattern of frequently doing just enough to win, the average margin of victory a relatively pedestrian 10.3 points. Three playoff wins over the Titans, Colts and Panthers came by a combined 16 points, ending with a 32-29 nip-and-tuck Super Bowl 38 against Carolina again decided by Vinatieri but widely remembered for Janet Jackson’s halftime show. Brady passed for 354 yards and three TDs to win Super Bowl MVP honors for the second time.
4. 2014 Patriots
Somewhat unremarkable in the framework of the franchise’s own lofty achievements, only New England could go 12-4 and earn home-field advantage in what felt like a humdrum regular season. The Patriots didn’t have a 500-yard rusher, both the offense and defense ranked outside the top 10, and there was that stunning 41-14 loss to Kansas City in Week 4 that had some “experts” calling for backup Jimmy Garoppolo to replace Brady. The infamous “Deflategate” asterisk to Brady’s career also started here following a 45-7 rout of the Colts in the AFC title game. Yet the Patriots surmounted any perceived warts to win their first championship in a decade, overcoming arguably their stiffest Super Bowl test against the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense. And it was the New England D, namely undrafted rookie Butler and his clutch interception of Russell Wilson’s ill-conceived goal-line pass in a 28-24 triumph, that provided the pivotal play on the way to Lombardi No. 4. Brady’s 328 yards and four TDs through the air trumped Butler for Super Bowl 49’s MVP hardware.
3. 2004 Patriots
The best of New England’s first trio of Super Bowl winners – and the only one to finish with a top-10 offense and defense – they set the record for consecutive wins (including playoffs) at 21 games, a streak snapped at Pittsburgh in Week 8. The Patriots would exact revenge three months later by winning the AFC crown at Heinz Field 41-27. RB Corey Dillon – he was acquired before the draft in a move Belichick would use to great effect, bringing in an apparent malcontent below market value – rushed for a franchise-record 1,635 yards. Branch won Super Bowl 39’s MVP nod, catching 11 passes for 133 yards in a game not quite as close as the 24-21 margin over the Eagles would indicate.
2. 2016 Patriots
They lost just one game with Brady under center, though he missed the first month of the season while serving his Deflategate suspension. (The Pats were 3-1 in TB12’s absence.) But New England’s average margin of victory in Brady’s 14 wins, including postseason, was nearly 16 points as he cut through the league like a buzzsaw, backed by the NFL’s stingiest defense. However TB12 and Co. saved their best for last, overcoming a 28-3 second-half deficit to the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 to become the first team to win the game in overtime, 34-28. Brady’s then-record 466 passing yards (he broke it the next year) notched him a record fourth game MVP.
1. 2007 Patriots
Some will immediately balk at the notion of anointing this as the Patriots’ greatest squad given their quest for a perfect 19-0 season was quashed in a shocking 17-14 Super Bowl 42 loss to the Giants. But New England remains the only team in NFL history to successfully navigate a 16-0 regular season. Brady became Brady this year, winning his first MVP award with a then-record 50 TD passes. Moss’ 23 TD grabs still stand as the league’s single-season record. Newly acquired Welker had a league-high 112 receptions. A team with eight Pro Bowlers also had plenty of stars on defense: Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork, Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison. The Patriots established a record with 589 points scored, a total surpassed only once (by the 2013 Broncos) since. New England’s 315-point differential remains the largest ever – 11 NFL teams that season didn’t score 315 points. So, granted, they didn’t win it all after running into a fierce Giants pass rush and David Tyree’s pixie-dusted helmet. But ask yourself, would you really pick against the ’07 Pats if they lined up against any of their New England brethren head to head … even if you might pick Brady and the 2020 Bucs – and their own ferocious defense – to take down the 18-1 juggernaut?
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.