Imagine a weeklong cross-country bus ride seated between a colicky infant and someone with onion breath shouting along to a Limp Bizkit playlist while the person behind you kicks your seat and the bus engine keeps backfiring. Now imagine that millions of people across the nation are enduring the same experience.
That is what a Super Bowl between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New England Patriots will feel like.
Quarterback Tom Brady’s Buccaneers and Coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots appear to be on a collision course for Super Bowl LVI. The Patriots have won six consecutive games and seven of their last eight. The Buccaneers are 8-3, and their late-season schedule is a stroll down a red carpet. Football Outsiders calculates a 14.8 percent chance of a Patriots-Buccaneers Super Bowl, the highest probability of any matchup.
A duel between Brady and his former team would be a boon for broadcasters who cater to a casual audience and a welcome matchup for the few remaining fans who still find the 20-year-plus Brady story fascinating. For those tired of seeing a few individuals gorge themselves on success for decades, a Super Bowl-size director’s cut of “Brady vs. Belichick: Dawn of Just Us” will be migraine fuel.
Get ready for weeks of philosophical musings about “legacies.” Brace yourself for interviews with forgotten fourth-stringers recounting the sordid details of Brady-Belichick spats they overheard in 2006. Prepare to suppress your gag reflex while a nation fawns yet again over the 44-year-old Brady’s apparent immortality and Belichick’s tactical brilliance. The run-up to such a Super Bowl would be like watching the seven-hour-plus documentary “The Beatles: Get Back” on a continuous loop, except with all the timeless music replaced by sports talk segments.
The Brady-Belichick divorce was supposed to have been settled in 2020: Belichick got the house, Brady got custody of the children (Rob Gronkowski, at least) and the Lombardi Trophy. The 2020 Patriots fell to 7-9 as Belichick grumbled uncharacteristic excuses for losses while wearing grimier-than-usual sweatshirts. This year, Brady even returned to Foxborough, Mass., to reassert his dominance, leading his team to a 19-17 victory on Oct. 3 that improved the Buccaneers’ record to 3-1 while dropping the Patriots to 1-3 and what appeared at the time to be irrelevance.
The Patriots have pulled themselves together since then. Veterans like linebacker Dont’a Hightower (who opted out of the 2020 season) and offensive linemen David Andrews and Shaq Mason are enjoying bounce-back years. Free-agent acquisitions like the pass rusher Matt Judon, receiver Kendrick Bourne and tight end Hunter Henry have been much-needed upgrades to a roster that grew too dependent on Brady in the late 2010s. And a schedule full of Jets, Houston Texans and opponents in injury-exacerbated free-fall (like the Tennessee Titans, who lost to the Patriots in Week 12) has also played a part.
The rookie quarterback Mac Jones also deserves credit, though his recent success is more a result of the Patriots’ turnaround than the cause. Jones has done a fine job of not crashing Belichick’s luxury sedan while driving with a provisional license, but the rush to anoint him as the Next Brady has been premature and self-consciously shrill.
Troy Aikman, a television analyst, said Jones would be Belichick’s “signal caller for the next 15 to 18 years” as the player tossed routine passes during a victory over the Atlanta Falcons, who could lose to a gentle breeze. If Jones reaches the Super Bowl, Patriots fans may demand that his birthday be designated a national holiday.
Meanwhile, Brady continues his victory lap around the N.F.C. He can still hit some of the high notes when called upon, but he leads the Buccaneers to most victories by distributing the ball to Pro Bowl playmakers from behind one of the league’s most impregnable offensive lines.
Even the schedule caters to Brady’s needs: The final six Buccaneers games come against opponents with a combined 7-17 record since Nov. 1, including the Jets, who refused to take sides during the separation.
A championship clash between the greatest player of the 21st century and his former mentor should be an objectively compelling sporting event with universal appeal. Unfortunately, Super Bowl hype is as noisy and persistent as a neighborhood full of leaf blowers, and both Brady’s faraway news conference stare and Belichick’s impatient growls lost their limited charm over the decades.
In the absence of fresh personalities and story lines, Super Bowl week faces the prospect of ceaseless contrived debates about whether the quarterback or coach “deserves credit” for all those past championships. There could be strained efforts to heap new superlatives on men already spoken of in near-messianic terms, and a queasy feeling that everyone west of Interstate 91 will be obligated to smile uncomfortably while Boston-area fans whip themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.
Those hoping to avoid the football equivalent of madness-inducing, Lovecraftian horror must root for the Buffalo Bills (7-4), who face the Patriots twice, including Monday night, and the Buccaneers once down the stretch. Assuming the Bills fail in their ersatz Van Helsing role, as they have for most of the last 20 years, the A.F.C.’s best hope lies in potential playoff foes like the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) and the Baltimore Ravens (8-3), the flashy-but-unreliable hares to Belichick’s tortoise.
The best bet to beat Brady’s Buccaneers in the N.F.C. playoffs may be the Green Bay Packers (9-3). Yes, the thought of a Brady-Belichick Super Bowl is so chilling that it makes rooting for Aaron Rodgers appealing by comparison.
If dread of a potential Brady Bowl fills you with an urge to renounce football and spend the winter in a Himalayan yurt, know that you are not alone. Yet there is another option: Put the N.F.L. in proper perspective among life’s priorities, tune out the histrionics and learn to celebrate the achievements of others and enjoy the game.
If you achieve that level of enlightenment by the time a Brady-Belichick Super Bowl inevitably arrives, please keep those of us for whom it’s too late in your hearts.