So long as Bill Belichick is wearing a Patriots hoodie, there will never be anything good about a New England loss.
Ugly as that 16-0 shutout to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday was, however — and make no mistake, it was historically bad — the sting was lessened by knowing that Tom Brady’s return was only hours away.
“Right now my thoughts are on the Buffalo game,” Belichick said.
Of course they are. But for everyone outside of Belichick’s alternate universe, this game will be forgotten the minute Brady walks back through the doors at One Patriot Place on Monday morning.
When Brady accepted his four-game suspension for Deflategate, the hope was that New England could get by well enough in his absence to go 3-1.
The Patriots had to start the season against the Arizona Cardinals, no easy feat, and do it with a quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, who had attempted all of 31 passes in his first two seasons. Garoppolo beat the Cards in Week 1 but then got hurt in the next game, against the Miami Dolphins, and the Patriots had to turn to rookie Jacoby Brissett.
Yet here they are, sitting atop the AFC East at 3-1 despite being blanked for the first time ever at Gillette Stadium.
“No one’s panicking,” Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett said afterward, smiling slightly. “They played better than us today. But we’re still the Patriots.”
And, with apologies to Garoppolo and Brissett, Brady is still Brady.
Brady’s skills make him one of the best quarterbacks in the game. But it is his competitive fire that has made him a surefire Hall of Famer.
Much like his coach, Brady thrives on doubts, slights and challenges, and nothing in his career compares with Deflategate. Last year, while appealing his suspension, he led the NFL in touchdown passes (36). His QB rating of 102.2 was his best in four years. With Brady playing each game as if he wanted to show up Commissioner Roger Goodell, the Patriots ran off 10 wins to start the season.
So just imagine how fired up he’s going to be upon his return from a banishment that he — and pretty much everyone in New England — still feels is unjust. As if the Cleveland Browns aren’t woeful enough, they’re Brady’s first victim, err, opponent.
“It’s going to be great,” said receiver Julian Edelman, one of Brady’s favorite targets. “He’s one of the best players on our team, a guy who leads us. It’s going to be good to have him back.”
Again, this is nothing against Garoppolo and Brissett. Both played remarkably well given the circumstances. But Brady is special, arguably the most dominant player of his generation.
He is a four-time Super Bowl champion and two-time league MVP. He’s never known a losing season and has missed the playoffs just once, in 2002. (The Patriots also failed to make the playoffs in 2008, when Brady ripped up his knee in the first half of the season opener.)
Making what he’s done even more impressive is that his only constant has been Belichick. Deion Branch, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez,Rob Gronkowski, Edelman — the supporting cast always changes but the end result never does.
“I’ve never been here for Brady in the regular season. I’m excited to see that,” said defensive end Chris Long, who signed with the Patriots in March after spending his first eight seasons in St. Louis.
“Look, we’re all excited to see that.”
The Patriots needed to get through Brady’s absence without suffering any long-term damage, and they did. Now they can ride him the rest of the season, knowing there’s nothing he would like more than to be standing on the stage in Houston, grinning like the Cheshire Cat when Goodell has to hand him the Lombardi Trophy.
A quarter of the season is already over. But for Brady, and the Patriots, it’s really just getting started.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.