Brady vs. Belichick: Previewing the NFL's biggest regular-season game

L to R (Getty Images): Patrick Smith/MediaNews Group

This week marks what will likely be the biggest spectacle in NFL regular-season history.

After 20 years together and one year apart, Tom Brady returns to Foxborough on Sunday night to face the New England Patriots for the first time.

The Patriots won six championships with Brady under center before allowing him to depart New England. After winning yet another Super Bowl last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady gets to stick his new gaudy ring in Bill Belichick's face.

Tampa Bay's visit to Gillette Stadium will be appointment viewing after Brady and Belichick's much-publicized divorce in spring 2020, and the world at large is likely to tune in.

It will be no surprise if the Buccaneers and Patriots' clash on Sunday Night Football surpasses these games as the most-watched prime-time regular-season telecast in NFL history:

Game Year Total viewers Context
Patriots-Colts 2007 33.8M Undefeated teams
Cowboys-49ers 1995 32.1M Last 2 Super Bowl winners
Cowboys-Saints 2010 31.9M Thanksgiving
Cowboys-Raiders 2013 31.7M Thanksgiving
Cowboys-Dolphins 2011 30.9M Thanksgiving
Patriots-Packers 2014 30.9M Week 13
Cowboys-Washington 2018 30.4M Thanksgiving
Cowboys-Seahawks 2014 30M Week 6
Patriots-Cowboys 2019 29.4M Week 12
Patriots-Cowboys 2007 29.1M Undefeated teams

This year's Buccaneers-Dallas Cowboys season opener drew 24.8 million viewers. The Brady-Belichick Bowl figures to blow that total out of the water.

Nothing grabs the attention of football fans quite like "America's Team," Thanksgiving football, and the Brady-Belichick Patriots. Sunday Night Football is a ratings bonanza in itself: It's been the United States' most-watched prime-time television series every year since 2011, and it often features the highest-rated non-playoff game each season.

The NFL didn't keep ratings data before 1987, but the 2007 matchup between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts is generally regarded as the most-watched regular-season game in league history. At the time, that November contest pitting Brady against Peyton Manning in a battle of two unbeaten teams was labeled the biggest regular-season game ever.

It drew 33.8 million viewers, and the Los Angeles Times reported it was seen by an average of 22.5% of homes across the 56 largest media markets in the U.S.

Since then, the regular-season games that have come closest to drawing that many viewers are three Thanksgiving broadcasts featuring the Cowboys and a 2014 contest between Brady's Patriots and the Green Bay Packers that was billed as a potential Super Bowl preview (30.9 million).

But none of those affairs - including the mountainous Brady-Manning matchup of '07 - featured the compelling storylines that this game will.

Brady vs. Belichick I

Brady and Belichick dominated the league together for 20 years, enjoying an unprecedented level of success. But as head coach and de facto general manager of the Patriots, Belichick has had a penchant for cutting ties with veteran stalwarts before they begin to decline.

The Brady-Belichick Patriots won the Super Bowl as recently as 2018, but the team signed Brady to a one-year, $23-million contract ahead of the 2019 season - a deal that could void at the end of the campaign and allow him to hit free agency for the first time in his career. That season, he threw a pick-6 to cement a wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans. It would be his last throw for the Patriots.

Brady and Belichick couldn't agree to a new deal that spring. So, on March 16, Brady met with Patriots owner Robert Kraft for an emotional goodbye. Brady announced the next day that he would become a free agent, and he signed with the Buccaneers on March 20. Shortly thereafter, longtime teammate Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement to join him in Tampa.

After winning the Super Bowl in his first year away from the "Patriot Way," Brady returns to Foxborough as Belichick's opponent. And a Week 4 slot means the huge matchup won't be dulled by injuries or a disappointing record on either side.

Past vs. Future?

Brady isn't only going head-to-head with the mastermind head coach; he's also taking on rookie passer Mac Jones, who's expected to succeed him as the Patriots' franchise quarterback.

Jones has held his own through his first three pro starts. He's the only rookie quarterback to win a game this season, and his debut holds up well to Brady's first three NFL starts in 2001. Brady completed 57.4% of his passes for 618 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in two wins and a loss. Jones has a 67.5% completion percentage for 737 yards, two touchdowns, three picks, and a lone victory.

Jones is coming off a three-interception performance and must now face the Buccaneers' vaunted front seven. The new-look Patriots will be heavy underdogs, and Jones may be hard-pressed to avoid a second consecutive loss - something the Brady-Belichick Patriots endured just 15 times (49-15, .765 winning percentage after a loss) during their dynastic run.

Brady is also coming off a loss. In 19 games with the Buccaneers, he's suffered back-to-back defeats once.

Making history

There's one more storyline to make a momentous game that much more compelling: Brady is expected to break the NFL's all-time passing record Sunday night against the Patriots.

Entering the season with 79,204 career passing yards, Brady needed 1,155 yards to break Drew Brees' record. After throwing the ball around the yard against the Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, and Los Angeles Rams, the 44-year-old now needs just 68 yards to break the record at Gillette Stadium.

There will likely be an emotional ceremony feting Brady ahead of Sunday's game, much like the one Manning received when he returned to Indianapolis as a member of the Denver Broncos. And, should he reach the mark, the NFL will pause the proceedings to once again celebrate Brady for breaking one of the league's most prestigious records. When Brees broke the passing record in 2018, the game was stopped, officials presented him with a document acknowledging the achievement, and the game ball was eventually handed over to Hall of Fame president David Baker. Sunday's celebration could be even bigger.

Brady vs. Belichick: Previewing the NFL's biggest regular-season game
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