Visiting teams arrive at Gillette Stadium up a thin-ribbon of a back road called Putnam Parkway, a private, secret entrance far from the traffic and tailgating out on Route 1. To get there team buses weave through classic New England roads and the quaint neighborhoods of Foxborough.
Then it hits them. Emerging suddenly from the thick woods behind the New England Patriots' lower practice field is the site of the towering stadium — 16 stories itself — elevated further up on a hill with bright lights stretching even deeper into the sky above it.
It belies the NFL’s traditional city center or smacked alongside interstate locations. It feels, especially on those dark Massachusetts nights, like a foreboding spot, somewhere the NFL hardly even belongs.
Not surprisingly, rival players have long called it one of the league’s more intimidating places to play.
Height, light and location are just part of it, of course. What was waiting inside mattered more, namely that from its opening in 2002 until a year ago, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick teamed up to make it hell on their opponents. In games Brady started, the Patriots went 117-19 in the regular season and 19-4 in the playoffs.
On Oct. 3, Tom Brady gets to experience Gillette in that entirely new way.
His Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team he left New England for in 2020, will visit the Patriots in a prime-time Sunday night game.
It doesn’t rank as the most enticing game of the entire NFL schedule — Browns-Chiefs, Buccaneers-Rams, Bills-Chiefs, Browns-Packers and so on certainly pop out. It is, however, the most unique, most history-rich and most emotional of the upcoming season.
It should also be the most expensive to attend as legions of Patriots fans who spent two decades worshipping Brady look to welcome/then not welcome him home in a showdown with Belichick and company. SeatGeek estimates the average resale price will be about $600.
“We expect this matchup to be amongst the all-time most in demand regular season games we have tracked,” said Chris Leyden, SeatGeek’s director of consumer strategy.
Sunset in Foxborough that Sunday will be around 6:40 p.m. With kickoff set for 8:20 p.m., Brady and the Bucs will arrive in the gathering dusk, not the dark intimidation of a cold, January evening. That’s one benefit. They also come as the reigning Super Bowl champions with a ready built roster looking to repeat, and certainly beat a reconstructed Patriots squad.
What they’ll find is perhaps unlike any other game in NFL history. Most multiple Super Bowl champion quarterbacks retired with their team. For others, there was never quite the same showdown — Joe Montana never returned to San Francisco, for example. Peyton Manning, as a Denver Bronco, played in Indianapolis (Colts won 39-33) but as big as Manning was there, he didn’t win six Lombardi Trophies.
Brady is both the greatest and most beloved Patriot of all time. The franchise was mostly a mess before he took over during the 2001 season in the old Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium next door that is now a shopping plaza.
The stands and parking lots will, undoubtedly, be filled with fans wearing Brady jerseys, there to cheer and honor him before the game and then root for his demise during it.
How will Brady respond? Will he charge out with his signature length of the field run and “LFG!” scream? Will he shake hands with old Patriots and Gillette personnel, from support staff to the Minutemen gun line known as the End Zone Militia? Will he meet up pregame, or post, with Belichick?
The two have expressed no outward hostilities since their split, but obviously two men who are that competitive are still driven to outdo the other. Brady gaining a semblance of roster control in Tampa and immediately winning the Super Bowl only adds to that.
Oh, yeah, and he even drew Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and the near-equally loved Gronk will be in the house too. Meanwhile, Belichick went on an un-Belichick like free agent spending spree last offseason in an effort to retool the franchise on the fly. You don’t think this game played a role in that?
This will be a cauldron of emotions — nostalgia, appreciation, friendship, devotion, defiance, rivalry, desperation, one-upmanship.
It coming early in the season increases the likelihood that it will be Cam Newton playing Brady’s old position, rather than rookie Mac Jones. Not only is Jones a bit of a project, but Newton, a former MVP who has started in a Super Bowl, is seemingly better equipped mentally and emotionally to step into this near-impossible challenge.
Tossing Jones into such a ring of fire could risk everything — although Belichick may care only about who is most ready to go. “Do Your Job” is the mantra, after all.
Either way, this will be a game that is much bigger than a game, an old New England family drama playing out in the fall, foliage-rich woods of Foxborough for all the country to see.
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