Still awkward watching Tom Brady lead the Bucs, but Mac Jones helps


When the Buccaneers host the Rams at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon with a trip to the NFC Championship on the line, Tom Brady will be looking for his sixth straight playoff win.

All five wins, of course, have been with the Bucs.

He’s 5-0 with at least two touchdowns in each playoff game since 2020, when the Patriots suffered a 20-13 loss to the Titans in what ended up being Brady’s last game in New England.

Watching Brady suit up for another team in the playoffs will always be weird, but the hope was that the weirdness would fade and some sense of a new normal would soon take over.

That process feels slow. But Mac Jones helps.

No, it’s not even worth the time to compare the 23-year-old Jones to the 44-year-old Brady. But watching the Bucs win with Brady now is at least a little bit less frustrating than it was a year ago, when Brady was dominating while Cam Newton and Bill Belichick ran one of the ugliest offenses in football and the Patriots had their first losing season since Belichick’s first year here in 2000.

Jones isn’t Brady but he’s not Newton, either. He had a good enough season and he’s trending up. We saw him get into a rhythm against Brady and the Bucs in Week 4, when he had 31 completions, his highest total all year. The Pats entered the playoffs ranked 13 out of the 14 playoff teams in passing yards, but was less of a reflection on Jones and more about the run-first offense and a slow style of play.

And while the offense wasn’t built to compete with Josh Allen and the Bills last weekend, it’s not like the Patriots need to start looking for their next quarterback.

Jones is clearly the guy. Whether that’s for one more year, two years or all three years remaining on his rookie deal, he’s going to get another chance to play quarterback for the Patriots. That’s almost certain.

It doesn’t mean that it’s easy to forget about Brady. Ruminating about the way he left town and wondering what it would look like if he was still sitting atop the AFC East is an unavoidable Sunday activity around here.

This version of the Pats doesn’t have too many weapons on offense, but would Brady have made them look a lot better than they are? He made Giovani Bernard and Tyler Johnson, among others, look great last week and he’ll probably find somebody new to spotlight against the Rams on Sunday.

It might be one of the key separators between Brady and faux-Brady types. A lot of quarterbacks can play the check-down game that’s helped make Brady so successful over the years. But how many could turn undersized slot receivers and third-down running backs into Pro Bowlers the way Brady did in New England for almost 20 years?

Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the “Tuck Rule Game,” when the Pats narrowly beat the Raiders, 16-13, in the Divisional Round before going on to topple the Rams for Brady’s first Super Bowl title.

What was interesting about watching the highlights from that game was the reminder that Brady was already a surgeon at dismantling the defense with his eyes and quick decision-making, despite it being his first year as a starting quarterback. On the final two drives, Brady most often targeted J.R. Redmond, Jermaine Wiggins and David Patten as he carved his way across the field.

These aren’t Hall of Fame players, but rather solid players who Brady got the most out of in that game.

This year, Jones found a nice rapport with Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry and Jakobi Myers, but watching him move the ball last weekend was nothing like the way Brady could move it in 2001, even while throwing into a snowstorm.

Still, that doesn’t mean this coming Sunday should be a pity party in New England.

Sure, Brady is gone. And for the first time since the 1990s, the Bills own the Patriots. They beat Brady’s Patriots just three times from 2001 through 2019, but have already beaten them four times since Brady left.

The Patriots obviously missed an opportunity to develop a quarterback to replace him, just as they screwed up by not finding a way to keep him in New England for the duration of his career.

All of that pain is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

The point is, it’s not as bad as it was last year. Time heals all wounds. And if Brady wins another title at 44, a lot of households in New England will be celebrating with him.

At least the Patriots have a future. It might be a murky one, but there’s a young quarterback at the helm and the team is trending up.

It’s not a bad consolation prize.

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