Mac Jones proves he has right stuff on Tom Brady's big night

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Perry: On Brady's big night, Mac Jones gives Pats important clarity originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady looked relieved.

He'd just spent about 20 minutes with his coach of 20 years. He carried a record-setting football in a duffel bag alongside him. After a harder-than-many-anticipated win over the Patriots, Brady entered into a converted weight room underneath the Gillette Stadium stands -- water dripping down from the ceiling about 30 feet to Brady's right -- for a press conference with about 100 folks packed tightly together.

He apologized for keeping them waiting. But he looked happy. He looked tired. Relieved.

"Just a lot of emotions," Brady said. "It was a very emotional week. Again, these guys are like my brothers, you know what I mean?

"There are two groups of people, all my Bucs teammates that I love and I'm going to battle with every week, and then there is another group of guys that I see, and those are my friends that I've been with for a long time. Matt Slater and Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower and John and Devin [McCourty] and David Andrews and [Brian] Hoyer. There is a whole crew. Josh [McDaniels]. These are the people that I've shared my life with. Very grateful for everything they've kind of contributed to my life. Very blessed."

A few minutes earlier, down the other end of the tunnel, Mac Jones looked calm.

It was Monday, technically, and he'd just submitted his best game of his young pro career, on a national stage, with his predecessor -- who was cheered wildly at different points of the night -- authoring another predictable fourth-quarter comeback to win.

But Jones was not dejected as he had been after his team's Week 3 loss to the Saints. That was something he said he'd wanted to improve moving forward, not letting his emotions get the best of him in defeat. He was critical of himself but not downtrodden.

Patriots-Bucs overreactions: Mac Jones gives fans hope in matchup with Brady

"I think we moved in the right direction," Jones said. "You know, we made plays and played hard the whole game. I turned the ball over. That's one of the problems, you know, turnovers can kill you. If you don't turn the ball over, you have a 90-something percent chance to win.

" ... But I have thought we moved the ball, passing well, and the run game needs to improve and we'll come up with ways to do that. I thought everyone fought really hard. It sucks we lost but yeah, look at it, like you said, that we're making some progress."

Jones took 12 hits, completed 78 percent of his passes, and took his team to within a long field-goal attempt for an upset win over the reigning Super Bowl champs. It wasn't perfect. He threw a pick and nearly threw another in the red zone. He took four sacks.

But the response from his teammates after the game -- teammates who'd watched Brady up close for years -- spoke volumes to the personal progress Jones has made. Doing what Jones did on Sunday Night Football, in as intense a regular-season atmosphere as there's ever been, only seemed to reaffirm it in their eyes.

"He keeps showing he's got some guts," Andrews said. "It's an honor to get to play with a guy like that. We just have to find a way to win, win a football game. He battles, he battles and he's a tough kid."

He’s one of the guys now. We don’t see him as a rookie... He's prepared for this moment.

Devin McCourty on Mac Jones

While the Patriots were provided more evidence that they have The Next Guy, The Last Guy provided more evidence he's still a dragon. Try as his old team did to slay him using various pressures and disguises throughout the night, he was, as he's long been, inevitable.

Afterwards it was all love. The cap to Brady's night saw him function as a one-man receiving line for an unending procession of well-wishers.

After the game he hugged Bill Belichick briefly at midfield. Before that it was McCourty, Deatrich Wise and Andrews. Then came Slater, Mac Jones, Shaq Mason, Matt Judon (who'd introduced himself to Brady several times over the course of the night as the Patriots' most effective pass-rusher) and fellow Michigan man Josh Uche.

After, Belichick made his way into the Bucs locker room, and the two had a long meeting with dozens outside the locker room caught off-guard to see the Patriots coach wander into an area of the stadium in which he's not often -- not ever? -- seen following a game.

While everyone waiting on Brady's start to his press conference knew why they were waiting, Brady didn't offer up any details as to what was said between arguably the two best to ever hold their positions in the history of professional football.

"We got a personal relationship, you know, for 20-plus years," Brady said. "He drafted me here. We've had a lot of personal conversations that should remain that way and are very private. And I would say so much is made of our relationship. You know, as I said earlier this week, from a player's standpoint you just expect the coach to give you everything he's got, and I'm sure as a player that's what he was hoping from me. 

"But nothing is really accurate that I ever see. It's all kind of -- definitely doesn't come from my personal feelings or beliefs. I got a lot of respect for him as a coach and obviously a lot of respect for this organization and all the different people here that try to make it successful."

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Brady took off in the direction of the Bucs buses a few minutes later. He stopped to say hello to a few more members of the media before dipping behind a curtain. Slater, who likes to call Brady by his full first name, "Thomas," found him back there for a brief follow-up visit.

Eventually, after blowing kisses to the crowd, catching up with old friends, and winning a football game, Brady was off into the night.

Jones would be back soon. He was the quarterback of a 1-3 team with a lot of work to do, with questions to face.

But, for many, Jones provided an answer to the great unknown confronting the franchise and its future with his play on Sunday night: The Patriots have their quarterback.

"We’re not worried about the kid," said McCourty. "He’s in here early. He stays late ... We expect him to lead ... He’s one of the guys now. We don’t see him as a rookie ... He's prepared for this moment. He wants this moment."