On Sunday in Tampa, Tom Brady will start his 331st regular-season game, and I am sure for him this one will be one of the biggest and most important of his career. It’s a shirt-and-hat game for the Bucs — win and they become the NFC South champion, guaranteeing themselves the No. 4 seed in the playoffs and an almost certain date with the Dallas Cowboys. If the Panthers win, they control their destiny and must beat the Saints in New Orleans to capture the South.
Brady’s 23rd NFL season hasn’t been anything like the other 22. His numbers are significantly down in every area, and regardless of the outcome of the next two games, 2022 will mark the lowest win total in Brady’s Hall of Fame career. Nothing looks easy for him on the field. His timing and rhythm seems off, and getting the ball into the end zone has been a struggle. The most points the Bucs have scored in their seven wins is 21, a far cry from their Super Bowl year in 2020 when they averaged 30. Generating five or six good plays in a row for the Bucs offense has been impossible, forcing many to ask: Is Brady near the end? Has Father Time finally won? I’m not sure — not because I am a devoted Brady fan, and thankful to have been part of a team he led to the Super Bowl wins, rather because I know what Brady likes and doesn’t.
For Brady and myself, working in the Patriots system is engrained in our DNA. We become like Brooks Hatlen in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Brooks was a 50-year member of Shawshank prison, and when he was finally paroled, he could not survive outside the prison walls. Nothing seemed right, he was out of sorts in a different world. He became institutionalized in the system and couldn’t adapt. Brady for 20 years has done things one way and so has the supporting cast around him. Everyone was aligned and held accountable. There were no stones left unturned in their preparation, and each week attacked the weaknesses of the opponent. Now many might say that’s how every team operates, so what’s the difference? The fact is few teams do. Even when Brady first went to Tampa, the Bucs struggled, and it wasn’t until the bye week in Week 13 did they get everyone on the same Patriots page. After the bye, they won eight games in a row, averaging 33.8 points per game. Brady had a solid offensive line and skill players all over — from Rob Gronkowski to Antonio Brown, who started only four games yet still had 62 targets and 45 catches.
The 2022 version of the Bucs is far different than the ’20 team. The line isn’t the same, the skills players are not as explosive and no one seems to be on the same page, causing Brady to look like an aging player in decline. Yet when he throws the ball or moves around, he doesn’t look old. Granted Brady doesn’t look confident or comfortable, but he doesn’t look 45. Remember when Peyton Manning was at the end? His arm was done, and he couldn’t execute the offense — which isn’t the case for Brady. After every poor throw or drop, Brady’s facial expression seems to indicate a miscommunication, a player not understanding how he expected the play to unfold for the situation. It’s the old, “I thought, you thought, we thought, no one thought” problem.
Will this get better? No chance, and ultimately it will cause Brady to leave Tampa and either retire and join the Fox broadcast booth or find another team. Each week, people head to the window and place money on the Bucs to cover or win outright as they have been the famous “steam play” over the last month. And each time, they have failed to cover, winning only two of their last five outright. Everyone thinks the Bucs will break out of the slump and become dynamic, which isn’t going to happen. They are what they are — not good enough and needing to be perfect to win games against bad teams. Imagine having to go into overtime to beat the Trace McSorley-led Cardinals? The Bucs don’t have a signature win — and each time they face a quality opponent, they get destroyed and lose by double digits. There is no gas left in the Bucs' tank — and even winning the South won’t change that.
Trust me, there will be teams wanting Brady to play for them next year — even at 46 years old. Either way, this will be his final season in Tampa as these problems, which have been omnipresent for three years, reached the tipping point this season. They might beat the Panthers this week, although the first time they played, in Week 7 as a 13-point road favorite, the Bucs were soundly beaten 21-3. Brady went 32-for-49 for 290 yards and 2-for-12 on third down, losing to PJ Walker, who threw for 177 yards and two touchdowns. This time they are a 3-point home favorite — a 10-point swing from the last game and an indication of how the book views the Bucs.
The Cowboys almost certainly will be the No. 5 seed in the NFC and will travel to face the winner of the South in the wild-card round. Because of that, maintaining health will become more important than winning, starting with their Thursday night game against the Titans in Nashville. Be careful betting with or against the Cowboys in the next two weeks, as understanding their in-game motivation will be difficult. They might start fast, then back off — causing the game to appear like a preseason contest. So please be careful and don’t assume what you read is true. Every team fears getting fined by the NFL league office for tanking games, so they will talk a good game all week before laying down on Sunday.
As for the Bucs, there is no backing off. Way back in Week 1, the Bucs soundly beat the Boys 19-3 behind their dominating defense, which is far from dominating now. So much has changed since that game — in the wrong direction. Much like the Panthers game in Week 7, the Bucs were a 2-point road favorite against the Cowboys. If the game is eventually repeated in the wild-card round, the Cowboys will be at least a 3-point road favorite — another indication of how far the Bucs have fallen.
Even though Brady’s return to Tampa is slim, he isn’t thinking about next year, only beating the Panthers, who will be without their starting corners, Jaycee Horn and Donte Jackson. Horn didn’t play in the Week 7 game either, and this lack of depth at corner for the Panthers might help the struggling Bucs offense. But don’t count out the Panthers. They understand how to play the Bucs from a defensive standpoint, and if they can run on the Bucs defense, they will have a chance to win. Brady’s 331st regular-season game will be memorable in many ways — either they get in rhythm or they get pushed out of the way. It’s a game worth handicapping.
For this week and next, handicapping games will require a system of elimination. Don’t assume each team is playing with the same intensity, and the lines will be reflective. The book isn’t going to give away bad numbers, so don’t fall for a betting line that seems out of sync. For example, San Francisco is only a 5.5-point favorite against the Raiders — which seems low and seems as though the Niners might rest their star players — assuming they are content with the third seed facing the sixth.
My advice for Week 17 preparation: Be careful, assume nothing. And that includes the weekly steam on Tampa.