Tom Brady returns to Foxborough, Mass., for the first time as an opponent when the Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night. Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

The Patriots are about to find out what the rest of the NFL knows, and experience the pain 31 other teams have endured for more than two decades.

They’re finally going to face Tom Brady in a big game.

Even at age 44, the thought of playing against Brady remains daunting.

Just this past week, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris half-joked that he was “scared to death” trying to figure out a way to beat him. It’s no different for the players.

In some respects, it’s a best- and worst-case scenario all at once.

On the plus side, you get to play against the greatest of all time. On the down-side, you have to be prepared to get your heart ripped out.

There aren’t many competitors as fierce as Brady when it comes to burying an opponent, or sticking in a late dagger. He’s been driven to succeed and win like few others.

Even practicing against Brady is a challenge. Pats defenders Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Lawrence Guy, Kyle Van Noy and J.C. Jackson have all attested to that.

They’ve all been across the line against No. 12 in a practice setting in Foxborough. They’ve witnessed his laser-focus on the field.

But Sunday will be much different.

This is a real game. And right now, Brady wants nothing more than to complete another scorched-earth mission when he returns to Foxborough on Sunday night.

Worse? Brady is coming to town after a loss. So he’s beyond motivated to beat the bag out of the Patriots.

While there are several new players on defense who have opposed Brady in a game, most of the players will be experiencing it for the first time during the epic showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Many of his former teammates are going to find out what it’s like to take on a motivated Brady, in full game face.

Ty Law certainly knows the look.

After leaving the Patriots in 2005, with three Super Bowl rings in hand, he went on to play for the Jets, Chiefs, and Broncos. So he got to face Brady a few times as an opponent.

The key for any opponent? Based on Law’s experience, it’s refusing to be intimidated.

He said he was as excited to square off against Brady as he was Peyton Manning or Dan Marino.

In his mind, he always wanted to play against the best, or in Brady’s case, the best of the best. So he welcomed the challenge.

“That’s how you determine who you are,” said Law. “That’s how you rate yourself.”

In Law’s mind, this should be a welcome challenge for players, not a moment of dread.

“You don’t love the game, and don’t want to play, if you say you’re not looking forward to having Tom Brady come to town, and playing against him,” said Law. “As much respect as he has across the league, I know when I played against my former team, when I played against Tom Brady, and he was the quarterback on the other team, I was trying to pick him off, too.”

And Law did just that.

During his final year before retiring, while playing for the Jets, Law led the NFL with 10 interceptions. One of those picks was a career-long 74-yard interception return for a touchdown against Brady and the Patriots.

That was in 2005, and the Jets still wound up losing.

“Why wouldn’t you want to put out your best performance, and say you beat Tom Brady? Or you got an interception on Tom Brady, or sacked Tom Brady? That’s everybody’s dream,” said Law. “When I played, I couldn’t wait to pick off Dan Marino. I looked forward to it because I had that much respect for Dan Marino. I wanted to get Steve Young. I wanted to get Troy Aikman, all these guys I watched on TV. So who wouldn’t want to get Tom? And I did in New York. That was the longest interception touchdown in my career.”

Law believes this is a moment for the Patriots to embrace.

It’s not something to fear. Some of Brady’s former teammates, be it McCourty, Hightower, Van Noy, and Jonathan Jones, won’t be intimidated. Hard to say for the rest.

“No one is expecting (the Patriots) to win, and half the damn stadium is going to be rooting for Tom,” said Law. “But what if you’re that guy who beats Tom Brady when he comes back home? Who wouldn’t want to at least have the opportunity to do that?”

Former Patriots fullback Heath Evans, meanwhile, also remembers what it was like to play with Brady, then deal with him on the opposing team years later. Evans recalled crying after blowing his knee out the previous week, and missing out on a chance to be on the field when the Saints took on the Patriots that year.

Still, Evans managed to contribute. He was a valuable asset to Saints Coach Sean Payton when it came to preparing for Brady in a 2009 game in New Orleans.

“I was asked to be brought into those coaching sessions,” Evans explained. “I kind of felt like Benedict Arnold in some ways. But it helps if you know someone’s tendencies, thought processes, and what they like to do in the red zone. What’s Tommy thinking? How does he like to attack things?”

The Saints beat the Patriots that day, 38-17, so maybe there’s something to having inside knowledge.

When it comes to this game, though, the Patriots don’t need another Benedict Arnold to know what makes Brady tick, and how to defend him. They know his soft spots. But it’s still going to be a tall order to take him down.

“If you’re going to beat Tom, you gotta play 60 minutes of mistake-free football,” said Law. “Because if you give him a shot and a chance, and make a mistake at the wrong time, he’s going to beat you.”

To a pulp.


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