Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. New England Patriots: Matchups, prediction for Brady’s return to Gillette

Tom Brady and the Buccaneers make the much-anticipated trip to New England to take on the Patriots in Week 4 on Sunday Night Football.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots meet in Week 4 on Sunday Night Football in the most anticipated game of the season. Tom Brady spent 20 epic seasons in Foxborough — a run that included an unparalleled nine Super Bowl appearances — but was ready to break free of Bill Belichick and the Patriot Way after the 2019 season.

He picked a soft landing spot: Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers and Bruce Arians put together a championship roster of their own. Now, Brady returns with a new ring and looks to take down the coach and franchise that helped him win his first six in Sunday night’s Buccaneers vs. Patriots matchup.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense vs. New England Patriots defense

Good luck, Bill. This offense is a Bugatti. The Buccaneers are top 10 in yards (406 per game), scoring (34.3), efficiency (6.3 yards per play), passing (349.7), interception rate (1.4%), sack rate (4.3%), and first downs (24). But the Patriots are back to playing the brand of bully ball we’ve grown to expect. They rank fifth in total defense (282.3 yards per game), first downs (17.7) and points (17.0), and sixth in yards per play (4.7).

Tom Brady vs. Patriots defense

Picture this: You spent 20 years in a marriage that was the envy of all your friends. Glamour, wealth, respect — you had it all. Six kids who are all super achievers. A summer house on the Cape. A winter place in Palm Beach. But as the years rolled on, the petty differences and personality clashes that could poison any relationship became just too much to bear. You feel underappreciated. You feel belittled. Finally, you get fed up. You want OUT.

After declaring your independence, you move on with your life. Leave town. Find happiness with someone else. Heck, you even have another kid. Things are going great. But now it’s time for your oldest to get married. And the wedding is at your ex’s home. It’s on their turf.

All of their friends who used to be your friends but now kind of hate you for leaving will be there. They know everything about you — including how to push your buttons. Do you find the discipline to rise above it, or do you crash and burn?

That’s Tom Brady’s challenge this weekend, except instead of being asked to give a toast while getting heckled, he’s asked to beat the coach who helped make his Hall of Fame career in the stadium that is one of the hardest places in the NFL for a road team to win.

Belichick knows all of Brady’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. But here’s the thing — Brady knows what makes Belichick tick too.

Brady, surrounded by perhaps the best weapons of his career, is having another terrific season. Through three weeks, he’s first league-wide in passing touchdowns (10), second in the NFL in passing yards (1,087), seventh in QBR (66.3), and ninth in passer rating (109.3).

Belichick, meanwhile, infused a bunch of free-agent talent into his defense this offseason, and it shows. The Patriots rank first in interception rate (6.2%), second in pass defense (159.7 yards per game), and fourth in sack rate (11.1%). Talk about strength vs. strength.

ADVANTAGE: Brady

Buccaneers weapons vs. Patriots defensive backs

Wide receiver Antonio Brown returned to the team Thursday after a 10-day COVID-19 hiatus. He should help an offense that didn’t play to its standards in a Week 3 loss to the Rams. The Buccaneers are tough to figure out because they have just so many weapons in the passing game. Brown, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Rob Gronkowski all average 5 or more targets per game. Gronkowski, however, is not expected to play with a rib injury.

The Patriots have had a lock-down backend even without Stephon Gilmore, who has been on the PUP with a quad injury since the start of training camp. J.C. Jackson is a ball magnet, with 2 more interceptions after picking off 9 passes in 2020. New Patriots corner Jalen Mills has been a savvy pickup. He’s allowed a microscopic 3.4 yards per target and a 54.0 passer rating on passes thrown in his coverage area. Safety Adrian Phillips has been marvelous in coverage as well.

ADVANTAGE: Push

Buccaneers offensive line vs. Patriots front seven

The Rams exposed Tampa’s talented offensive line a bit in Week 3, with 6 tackles for loss and 5 quarterback hits. The Buccaneers also couldn’t run the ball — an area of season-long concern for Arians. Their 3.5 yards per carry is 26th. Pass blocking is the strength of a group led by its left side (Donovan Smith at tackle, Ali Marpet at guard).

Tampa Bay will have its hands full with a Patriots defense featuring Matt Judon, who has been a wrecking ball in his first three games as a Patriot. He has 6 quarterback hits, 4 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks in three games.

Judon, Josh Uche (who sat out the Saints game with a back injury, although he practiced on a limited basis Wednesday), Kyle Van Noy, and Dont’a Hightower (who is still finding his form after a 2020 COVID-19 sabbatical) might make up the best group of linebackers in football. Furthermore, Deatrich Wise is a roadblock up front.

ADVANTAGE: Patriots

New England Patriots offense vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense

A team starting a rookie quarterback is expected to take its lumps early. But Mac Jones is not their biggest worry. Their difficulty running the ball is (24th in yards, 21st in yards per carry in 2021).

With that context, it’s no surprise Josh McDaniels’ group ranks 27th in yards per play (4.8), 20th in first downs (19 per game), and last in red-zone efficiency (25%). The Buccaneers have their own issues in this matchup, allowing the seventh-most yards (402 per game) and getting the quarterback at the lowest rate in the league (2.1%).

Mac Jones vs. Buccaneers defense

Are teams figuring out the 15th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft? His completion percentage, passer rating, and yards per attempt have all decreased in each of the past two weeks.

Jones isn’t making terrible decisions — his bad throw rate (12%) and on-target rate (78.6%) are both fine, and his average release time (2.72 seconds) isn’t terrible either. But he hasn’t had much success throwing downfield. Jones’ average completed air yards (4.9) is in the bottom 10 of the league, and he has the third-lowest average air yards differential. Those stats are courtesy of Next Gen Stats.

This might be the week Jones figures it out. He’s playing at home against the NFL’s 32nd-ranked pass defense (allowing 338.3 yards per game) and the NFL’s 32nd pass rush (sacking the opposing quarterback just 2.1% of the time). The Bucs are atrocious on third down, allowing conversions on 53.2% of the time (29th in the NFL).

ADVANTAGE: Push

Patriots weapons vs. Buccaneers defensive backs

Why do the Patriots trot out replacement-level receivers every single year? The Nelson Agholor gamble hasn’t worked. He’s averaging 37 receiving yards per game. Hunter Henry looks like he was overpaid — he has 0 touchdowns on 10 catches in 2021. And where’s Jonnu Smith? He’s averaging 7.4 yards per catch. Jakobi Meyers might be the best of a bad bunch, but he’s not dynamic (9.3 yards per catch). Yeesh.

They’ll find no sympathy from the Buccaneers’ secondary. They had some concerns at corner going into the season, and the situation has gotten so dire that they signed Richard Sherman off the street this week. He’s expected to play Sunday — and considering the Buccaneers’ injury situation, could potentially even start.

Sean Murphy-Bunting is out for at least a few more weeks with a banged-up elbow. Jamel Dean (knee) is out too. Carlton Davis has been OK, but not great. The strength of this secondary is at safety, where Jordan Whitehead has been excellent this year.

ADVANTAGE: Buccaneers

Patriots offensive line vs. Buccaneers front seven

New England’s line is a predictably scrappy, solid group that could be really good once right tackle Trent Brown returns from a Week 1 calf injury. His replacement, Justin Herron, has been the team’s only real concern through three weeks. Mike Onwenu (0 penalties, 1 sack in 206 snaps) has been a pleasant surprise at right guard.

But will they be able to run the ball?

Patriots running back James White (hip) is likely out for the year. Might this be the week Rhamondre Stevenson climbs out of Belichick’s doghouse after fumbling his first (and to this point, only) NFL carry? The Patriots might not have any other choice.

The offensive line will be tested against perhaps the best defensive front in football. Teams have basically given up on even trying to run against the Buccaneers, who rank third in efficiency and fourth in yards allowed. Vita Vea is a menace at the nose, William Gholston sets the edge, and Lavonte David cleans up the middle. One injury concern of note: Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) did not practice Wednesday.

ADVANTAGE: Buccaneers

Betting line and game prediction

William Hill had the Buccaneers favored by 7 points late in the week. While that seems a bit fat for a game at Gillette featuring an excellent Patriots defense, we do wonder how New England will be able to generate enough offense to pull off the upset. The Buccaneers gain, on average, 1.5 more yards per play than the Patriots. But the Patriots surrender on average 1.1 fewer yards than the Buccaneers. We lean Tampa Bay here but think it’ll be a closer game than most.

Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Patriots 20

Adam Beasley is the NFL Director for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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