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'Very emotional week' for Tom Brady concludes with surreal Buccaneers victory over Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The tribute video was perfunctory and played when Tom Brady was unable to see it, for a pregame audience of sodden fans and a few kickers.

Brady had heard his name chanted again here about an hour earlier, when he jogged onto the field, past a gaggle of fans wearing a this-is-your-life collection of jerseys -- Brady's of old and new vintage, but also those of Julian Edelman, Jakobi Meyers, Rob Gronkowski and even Drew Bledsoe -- and bearing signs that said things like "God. Family. Brady."

There were boos as the Bucs took the field for their first drive, and that seemed about right, summing up the conflicted feelings everyone in the stadium -- fans, of course, but almost certainly Brady and even Bill Belichick -- had about this strangest of NFL spectacles: the greatest quarterback of his era returning in a different uniform to face the team with which his relationship had splintered.

Brady had heard displeasure here before -- sporadically, of course -- most poignantly as the offense sputtered in 2019 and his time here came to an inglorious, frustrated end. The reason for them tonight could not have been more different. Brady was no longer frustrated. Brady had found happiness elsewhere.

The buildup to Brady's return had been immense, starting in May when the schedule was released and building this week to playoff-level examinations of personal motivation and the divvying up of credit for a dynasty.

On Sunday, even eight hours before kickoff, there were dozens of television cameras around the stadium and fans in handsewn Pats/Bucs jerseys and plentiful former Patriots reminding everyone of the glory days.

It was surreal, and it ended surreally with Nick Folk's 56-yard field goal attempt clanging off the left upright to give the Bucs a 19-17 victory.

Folk had made 36 field goals in a row before that miss, and it was greeted by a deep groan from the Patriots crowd.

Brady leading a go-ahead drive late in the game was grimly familiar for Patriots fans. Him being barely a 50% passer in the game, limited by Belichick's defensive plan, was not.

And then Belichick waited a few moments in an awkward receiving line of Patriots for a quick embrace with Brady, pulling him close and then turning quickly away. Brady was left to share a few more hugs with his former teammates -- the people he's shared his life with, he said -- and to wave and blow kisses to the fans who remained.

Once it was over, Belichick was in no mood to dwell on nostalgia. Asked what it was like to face Brady for the first time, Belichick was crisp.

"Look, we went against Tom Brady every day, every day in practice defensively," he said. "So it's not like we've never seen Tom Brady before."

Later, Belichick went into the Bucs locker room to speak to Brady and spent nearly 25 minutes in there.

The mini-Super Bowl atmosphere almost certainly contributed to the ragged, nervy game.

It was raining and neither offense was crisp. Brady sailed some passes and missed the injured Rob Gronkowski.

The Patriots struggled to protect Mac Jones with Trent Brown absent.

Still, when Brady completed a 28-yard pass to Mike Evans late in the first quarter that broke the NFL’s all-time passing yards mark, the game did not pause for even a second to acknowledge the accomplishment. Neither the Patriots nor Brady, it seemed, wanted to dwell on the moment. Many of the people here Sunday had seen so many of those yards accumulated up close, after all, and some had even had a hand in engineering them. They had cheered then.

While the fans stood for the entirety of the game, the emotion for the teams seemed to have been dialed down early. That seemed appropriate. The Patriots with Brady had been coolly efficient, piling up Super Bowls while revealing only limited pleasure. One of the obvious aftereffects of Brady's move to Tampa has been his more open public persona. The other was reinforced on Sunday. While the Patriots may have finally found Brady's heir in Jones -- receiver Kendrick Bourne said he looked like a "baby Tom" -- Brady plays on the better, more complete team.

The Bucs leaned on their running game and run defense, forcing the game into Jones' hands. That the rookie QB put New England in position to win will have to be a balm for the Patriots. That it was Brady who did lead the game-winning drive, with runs by Leonard Fournette and passes to Evans and Antonio Brown, was one of the primary reasons the 22nd-year veteran decided to leave the Patriots in the first place -- he wanted to play for a team that would accumulate enough talent to win Super Bowls. The Bucs, now 3-1, are that team. The Patriots, just this side of rebuilding, are not -- and several players rejected the notion that limiting Tampa Bay to just 19 points represented a moral victory.

During the week, Fournette said, Brady told the Bucs not to worry about him and the storylines surrounding him and to concentrate on winning the game.

"I think it's very, very special for him obviously," Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. "You know, he kept it inside all week and he's probably letting it out right now. But it was a big week for him, but it was a bigger week for the team. I was very, very frustrated with everybody saying this was a quarterback and a coach. This is a team sport. The Bucs won this game. We beat the Patriots. We were losing sight that this is a team game. Everybody wanted to make this all about Brady and Belichick. I don't think Bill played a snap. He had 22 guys out there playing their ass off, and I knew he would. We had 22 guys out there playing their asses off. One of them just happened to be named Brady."

As the night two decades in the making finally came to an end, Brady admitted it was a "very emotional week" as he anticipated his return, thinking about the people here who had made an impact on him. He tried not to have any expectations about how he would be treated by fans.

They were "awesome," he said.

He revealed nothing about what he and Belichick said to each other. About their relationship, though, he said, "Nothing is really accurate that I ever see. It definitely doesn't come from my personal feeling or beliefs. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and all the different people in this organization."

Brady was asked about this potentially being his final game at Gillette Stadium, where he had authored most of his extraordinary career. Brady is 44 years old and the next possible year the Bucs could play here is 2023.

"I don't know what the future holds," he said. "Maybe there's an opportunity to come back here."

Mostly, Brady sounded early Monday morning like he was at peace. With his team's win, certainly, but also with how he was received and treated.

"I feel like I'll always be a part of this community," Brady said. "It's been an amazing place for me. It still is."

The human-interest elements of this game had almost completely overshadowed the game itself. But at Brady's feet as he spoke was a large bag. Sticking out was a football, the one he had used to set the all-time passing-yardage mark. The record was a blip on this night, drowned out by the drama.

But all those yards contributed to all those victories -- and made all those people stand in the rain to watch Brady play on this field one more time, even if he beat their team.

"I just hope everybody who caught passes from me over the years just had a little smile on their face tonight knowing that they contributed to a very cool record," he said.

So many of the people who watched those passes had smiles, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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