Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady high fives fans after leading the Buccaneers to a 19-17 win over the New England Patriots in his first game against his former team on Sunday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Steven Senne/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The sky was the color of the bottom of a gutter. The slanting, sideways rain plastered Tom Brady’s hair to the other side of his head as he stood on the opposite sideline. It was all inverted, from an odd angle. It wasn’t his home field, and the wind and the New England Patriots made him feel it.

He ran onto the field Sunday night and did his habitual sprint the length of it and threw a fist in the air, but he came out of the wrong entrance, from an unaccustomed direction in Gillette Stadium. “I couldn’t run through the normal tunnel,” he said afterward. “It just happened to be the opposite tunnel tonight. Just a lot of emotions.”

You could feel that strange, countervailing undertow all night long in this strange game, in which Brady never seemed to quite get comfortable.

Partly that was because of the checkmating defense by his old coach Bill Belichick, and partly it was the pelting rain and chill winds, which had once been his home-field allies. “It was just very typical Patriots-type weather,” he said. “A very tough football environment. They make you earn it.”

Frankly, this game was everything Brady went to Florida to get away from – the dour conditions, the grinding nature of the football. By the time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged from it winners by the old-timey score of 19-17, after four lead changes in the fourth quarter, it’s safe to say Brady was relieved to be leaving again. It had been such a long buildup of hype, theater and anticipation, “a very emotional week,” Brady admitted.

He had spent 20 years as a New England Patriot, and his children had been “born on Beacon Street,” he said. “These are people I shared my life with.” But then had come that strained parting two years ago, when Belichick wouldn’t meet his terms, and he wouldn’t meet Belichick’s, so he had changed allegiances and his locale to warmer air.

It was unfair, the undue emphasis on Brady and Belichick, as if they were the only two who mattered, and as if this were something more than an early regular season game. It fogged up and distorted the pregame lenses like the rain that blurred the cameras. Brady tried to diffuse it, vainly. “It’s not about the quarterback. It’s not about the fans or the home crowd, or relationships of 20 years. It’s about two good football teams going at it,” he said earlier in the week.

Nevertheless, the chatter continued. Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians called it “frustrating,” because after all, “I don’t think Bill played a snap,” Arians said. And in fact, it was Brady’s supporting cast who won the contest, from Leonard Fournette’s plunging runs to Ryan Succop’s 48-yard field goal with 1:57 to go. As for Brady, he had been less than illustrious, completing 22 of 43 passes for 269 yards, and Arians suggested he had played a little uptight. “Very careful,” Arians said. “He wasn’t going to make any mistakes that cost us the game.”

Still, there was a very real extra edge in this game, a sense that it was personal for Brady and Belichick. For all their protestations that they had a good relationship, nevertheless there was an estrangement, wasn’t there, because after all, here they were on opposite sidelines. The greatest quarterback who ever lived against the greatest coach, his former mentor, the apprentice against the sorcerer.

When Brady became a free agent in March of 2020, he was past 40 and his passer rating had dipped and by any ordinary math he seemed headed for an inevitable decline. Which presumably is why the Patriots refused to offer him a two-year guarantee. Brady wanted a gesture that Belichick recognized what he had in him, knew how precedent-breaking he was. It didn’t come. The Patriots were clearly headed into a rebuilding cycle. Maybe Brady didn’t really want to stay under those circumstances, anyway. Perhaps the parting was inevitable.

“All those things are super personal,” Brady said earlier in the week. “… We handled things as gracefully as we could. . . . I think everyone understood where we were at, the people involved in the situation, and things worked out the best for all of us.”

Still, Brady had felt slighted by the way it ended. And surely Belichick couldn’t feel good about letting the greatest quarterback who ever played walk out the door and straight into another Super Bowl title with Tampa, while his own team has gone just 8-12 without Brady. There was just the faintest hint of passive aggression in the tone of both men in the run-up to the game.

Asked if he would approach this differently from any other regular season game, Brady said, “I’m going to do what I always do: go be a great quarterback.” And then he made clear that Tampa had believed in him when others had not. “We’re all trying to do the best we can do now,” he said. “That’s what happens in life, you know? You go through these experiences, you don’t know what life’s going to be, and the only thing I know how to do is give it all I can, in every day and moment. And the people who really bet on me, I want to do really well for them.”

Belichick, meanwhile, managed to hint that Brady had simply imported the same system he had run in New England to Tampa. “It’s the offense he’s run his whole career,” Belichick said. “Well, I mean, as it evolved here.”

So it was with curiosity that you watched to see how they would be with each other when it was all over. The two men met at the center of the field, from their opposite directions. It had been a hard night for both. They were soaked. Belichick hugged Brady by his shoulder pad and murmured something brief in his ear, and then jogged to get out of the rain. But then, away from the cameras and the chanting public, they met again. And this time, apparently, they really talked. Belichick made his way to a private area near the Buccaneers’ locker room, where Brady met him. No one knows what they said to each other; both are determined to keep it private. “We had a lot of personal conversations that should remain that way,” Brady said.

But you got an undeniable sense that the right thing had happened. It had been something short of a reunion. But it had been something close to a reconciliation.

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