Patriots_Buccaneers (copy)

New England Patriots QB Mac Jones looks for an open receiver during Sunday night’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium.

In the male-dominated world of sports, Brady vs. Belichick has been the most intensely-watched, longest-running soap opera.

The biggest chapter yet in this drama unfolded Sunday night on the turf of Gillette Stadium.

Tom Brady, the quarterback who led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl titles, returned to Foxboro and defeated his old mentor, coach Bill Belichick, 19-17 in a rain-soaked thriller.

Brady, who had a hug and long talk with Patriots owner Robert Kraft inside the stadium before the game, exchanged a brief hug with Belichick after the final whistle, perhaps adding more intrigue over their 20-year relationship, which ended with Brady’s departure for Tampa Bay.

No, this will not be the last act in this soap opera.

If anything, the narrow victory by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, achieved only after Patriots kicker Nick Folk’s 56-yard field attempt clanged off the left upright with less than a minute to play, will likely only add fuel to the debate over his more responsible for the Vince Lombardi residing in Foxboro, the coach or the quarterback.

That’s because the Patriots nearly pulled off an upset against the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs, not because Belichick has superior players but because his defense smartly kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone all but once and because Brady’s successor, rookie Mac Jones, showed why the coach has such faith in him.

There were times, in fact, when Jones looked like the better quarterback on the field, at one point recording 18 straight completions and leading a touchdown drive with Brady-like precision, despite having weak pass protection and virtually no ground game.

Far too many mistakes by the Patriots — penalties, turnovers and an unnecessary timeout near the end of the game — were what ultimately sent Brady and the Bucs home with their third victory in four tries this season.

This soap opera has been simmering for years. Belichick has a well-earned reputation for shedding players — even those who have been performing well for them and are fan favorites — when he sees they are hitting their athletic decline. He believed he was better off getting rid of a Vince Wilfork or a Logan Mankins a year too early than a year too late.

Belichick tried to move on from Brady in 2017, but Kraft stepped in and forced the coach to trade Jimmy Garoppolo, the heir apparent at quarterback.

In 2018, it looked like Belichick was right. It’s not that Brady played poorly that season, it’s that he played a tick below his typically brilliant standards. He was eighth in a statistic called total quarterback value and 12th in another called down-to-down efficiency.

They were numbers that would be perfectly fine for any normal player, but Brady is not just anyone; he wanted to play until he’s 45. He hasn’t ruled out playing until 50.

Most jarring of all were Brady’s numbers against the blitz that season. When teams sent an extra defender or two, Brady’s passer rating tanked to 59.6, the very worst mark in the league. Good NFL quarterbacks traditionally shred the blitz. When the opposition sends an extra defender, that leaves a receiver open or just a single defender is covering every receiver, easy pickings for a sharpshooter like Brady.

Yes, the Patriots won the Super Bowl that season. But that Vince Lombardi Trophy was mostly due to a strong running game and a defense that held the most feared offense in the league, the Los Angeles Rams, to a single field goal in the title game.

A year later, the Patriots finished the season 4-4, then were ousted in the first round of the playoffs, Brady throwing an interception for a Tennessee Titans touchdown to end the game.

Belichick, who has been analyzing game film since he was a young boy, no doubt saw the slight drop in Brady’s performance. He also saw Brady spending less time preparing for the season, reporting only to the training sessions he was required to attend.

The coach decided it was best to look for a successor.

For Brady’s part, he must have been tired of his job — and his very, very demanding boss – after 20 years. Even if you’ve been wildly successful, wouldn’t you want to call your own shots if you could? To see what you could do on your own? And to do it in a climate even warmer than his California boyhood home?

The soap opera took a dramatic turn on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 when Brady announced he was heading to Tampa Bay. Talk radio has not stopped talking about it ever since.

Do Brady and Belichick hate each other? Who is to blame for the breakup? Who takes the credit for the Patriots unprecedented reign over the NFL?

Many thought Brady was making a big mistake. He was, after all, older than almost anyone who played in the league before. Doesn’t Father Time always prevail, especially when it comes to athletes? But of course, Brady played phenomenally, especially at crunch time, and the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last season. Until Sunday night, they looked like a vastly superior team to the Patriots this year, and TB12 is enjoying another outstanding season at age 44.

And while this chapter in the soap opera no doubt garnered fabulous ratings for NBC, it was simply the most visible act so far.

The soap opera will go on. What happened on the turf at Gillette Stadium Sunday night will continue to be talked about in the male-dominated world of talk radio. Books will be written of the Brady-Belichick relationship.

When the greatest partnership in the history of America’s biggest sport is ripped apart, a cottage industry of speculators will go after the clues.

So, don’t expect the soap opera to come to an end, just because Brady and Belichick faced each other Sunday night.

The drama will continue, at least until both performers take their final bow on the stage.

MIKE KIRBY, a local columnist, can be reached at mkirbygolf18@gmail.com.