A fascinating matchup: Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick

Tom Brady put this moment on his psychological calendar almost from the moment he and the Patriots made the decision to part ways after two decades.

Now that the time has arrived, the mythical 44-year-old quarterback is trying to make things business as usual — already if that’s quite simply impossible, given his emotional preference for an organization he led to six Super Bowl championships alongside a coach whose own Hall of Fame legacy was forged at Gillette Stadium.

“I haven’t thought too much about it,” Brady said this past week when asked how he’ll manager his emotions. “I’m just going to try to do what I always do — go be a great quarterback.

“clearly, I understand the opponent, I know all those guys, they’re some of my great friends [and] they will be for the rest of my life. I know a lot of coaches, players, the owners, the staff. It will be great to see everyone after the game, but up until the game, I’m focused on trying to go win a football game.”

If we’ve learned anything about Brady during his unparalleled career, it’s that he’s one of the most emotionally invested competitors in any sport in any era. Given his 20-year preference for the Patriots, for whom he won his first Super Bowl title in his second NFL season and his sixth after his 19th, it will be next to impossible, already for him, to completely shut out the noise and concentrate on what might be the most widely expected regular-season game ever.

The matchup was preceded by Brady’s difficult decision to part ways with the only team he’d ever known. After an emotional meeting on March 17, 2020, at the home of team owner Robert Kraft — a meeting described by Kraft as “a really positive, loving moment” — Brady announced he was leaving. He signed a two-year contract with the Buccaneers, consequently ending the most achieved quarterback/coach alliance in pro football history.

According to the soon-to-be-published book “It’s Better To Be Feared,” ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham wrote that Belichick wanted Brady’s exit interview conducted over the phone. Belichick pushed back on that concept this past week, telling reporters, “No, that’s not true” when asked if he elected not to meet with Brady before he left the team. Belichick did not elaborate, however.

“I’m going to focus on this game and try to prepare for the Bucs,” he said.

Brady was reluctant to discuss details of his parting with the Patriots. He’d rather keep his focus on the game. But he did say he left on good terms with the Patriots and Belichick.

“All those things are super-personal,” he said. “We had a great relationship. Everything was handled the right way. We handled everything as gracefully as we could. It was an amazing time. It was handled perfectly. I think everyone understood where we were at — the people involved in the situation. Things worked out best for all of us.”

truly, things have worked out brilliantly for Brady.

For the Patriots, not so much.

If living well is the best revenge, then Brady clearly has gotten the better of the deal so far. He won his seventh Super Bowl title last season, leading the Bucs to an upset of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game and then conquering defending champion Kansas City in the Super Bowl. And now, with a win over the Patriots, he would join Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as the only quarterback to beat every team in the NFL at the minimum once.

The Patriots, meanwhile, failed to make the playoffs last season for only the second time since 2001. Belichick is 1-2 as he tries to make his way with Brady successor Mac Jones, the Patriots’ first-round pick in this year’s draft.

“We’re all trying to do the best we can do now,” Brady said. “That’s what happens in life. You don’t know where life is gonna rule. I think the only thing I know how to do is give it all I can every day, every moment, and the people who really bet on me, I want to do really well for them.”

Belichick acknowledged his affinity for Brady, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan in 2000 who replaced Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season to begin his unmatched career. Asked on Friday if he would have had all that success in the last 20 years without Brady, Belichick said, “Of course not.”

“I’ve been on the record, I don’t know, dozens of times saying there’s no quarterback I would rather have than Tom Brady,” Belichick said. “And I nevertheless feel that way. I was very lucky to have Tom as the quarterback, to coach him. He was as good as any coach could ever ask for.”

Former Giant claps back at Mara boos

When Giants president and co-owner John Mara was introduced last week to honor Eli Manning at halftime of a game against the Falcons, many fans booed. Mara has become a target of criticism for the team’s misfortunes since the Giants last won the Super Bowl after the 2011 season, and the chorus of boos reflected that disenchantment.

But former cornerback Perry Williams, who helped the team win Super Bowls after the 1986 and 1990 seasons, pushed back against that show of emotion, instead suggesting to fans that the subject of their ire ought to be directed in other places.

“I was offended because the Mara family is like an extended family for me, and they were great to me for 11 years,” said Williams, who was with the Giants from 1983-93. “I’m disenchanted with the players. The coaches are important, yes, they’ve got to teach the guys schemes and techniques, but the bottom line is [players] having pride. That’s the meaningful information, pride.

“If you don’t have any pride, you don’t have no guts,” Williams said. “You’re stealing from the man. Go out there and play, play the game. If you don’t lay your guts out every single time, the hell with you — to any guy, I don’t care who it is. Lay your guts on the line every time.”

Williams was one of the most soft-spoken players on the Giants’ great teams of the 1980s, but he felt the need to speak up after seeing (and hearing) the fans target Mara.

“The players’ effort is not good enough for me,” he said. “It’s inexcusable to me. at any rate your role is, execute your role and do it the best you possibly can do it. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a mistake going 100 miles an hour. You don’t want to play the game, give [Mara] his checks back and go get a 9-5 job. Don’t embarrass yourself. You don’t want to play, go home.

“I’d rather have a man with half the ability but giving his all out there, playing his guts out,” Williams said. “That’s why we had success in the ’80s. We had guys with pride.

“Were we the most talented team? No, but pride showed up. Guts showed up.”

Big Ben near the end?

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the last quarterback standing from the 2004 draft, which also featured Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. But time may be running out on the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

After starting off with a 23-16 upset of the Bills in Week 1, when the Steelers’ defense starred against the defending AFC East champions, Roethlisberger has lost two straight games and has looked considerably slower in trying to function in the pocket. Going back to last season, the Steelers, who started off 11-0 last year, have lost six of their last eight.

It could get worse; the Steelers are at the surging Packers on Sunday. It’s the first time Roethlisberger has faced Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers since Green Bay beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl a decade ago.

“It’s nevertheless an honor to proportion a stadium with one of the greatest, and a guy I admire, and a lot of people admire, that has just done it at such a high level for a long time,” Roethlisberger said of Rodgers. “It’s pretty cool to watch his expert of the game.”

Perhaps Roethlisberger can summon some of the magic that has made him one of the game’s elite quarterbacks for years. But already if he does play well against the Packers, you have to surprise if he is at the point that it’s time to move on.

Mike Tomlin ultimately will have to address that issue. For now, the Steelers’ coach is concerned about righting the ship after two bad performances.

“We understand where we are,” Tomlin said. “We don’t want to be here. We don’t like it, but forget about not liking it. What are you going to do about it?”

additional points

Lamar Jackson is expected to play on Sunday after missing two days of practice with a back issue. It’s further proof that Jackson, who does not have an agent but hopes to obtain a long-term contract extension, needs to assure his future by getting a deal done sooner instead of later . . . Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is set to make the 50th start of his career when he faces the Eagles on Sunday. His 15,092 passing yards and 123 touchdown passes in that span already are the most of any quarterback in his first 50 starts . . . With at the minimum three touchdown passes against the Eagles, Mahomes would become the fifth quarterback in NFL history to have at the minimum three TD passes in each of his first four games of a season . . . Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray have completed more than 80% of their passes in each of the last two games. They can become the first quarterbacks ever to complete more than 80% of their passes in three straight games . . . Sam Darnold’s substantial play has been a major factor in Carolina’s 3-0 start, but the defense also has done excellent work. The Panthers rule the NFL with 14 sacks by the first three games and are 3-0 for the first time since 2015, when they started 14-0 and went to Super Bowl 50. Carolina pass rushers Brian Burns and Haason Reddick have at the minimum one sack in each of their first three games.