TAMPA — By any objective measure, Sunday’s return of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to Foxborough, where they helped erect a dynasty, ranks as historic.
So does the buildup — a veritable Mount Everest of hyperbole — leading to it.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to a social media post or sound bite (or both) promoting the Bucs-Patriots game as the biggest regular-season contest in NFL history. NBC, broadcasting the game, has been shamelessly complicit in stoking interest.
In fairness, the claims possess a degree of merit.
Brady carved out an unprecedented career in New England with six Super Bowl titles in 20 seasons (Gronk was part of three of those title teams), making this de facto homecoming both rare and compelling. The fact Patriots coach Bill Belichick clearly wasn’t keen on re-signing Brady after the 2019 season only ratchets Brady’s incentive for this game, as well as the dramatic appeal.
Remember when Steve Spurrier made his first return to the Swamp as South Carolina’s coach? Multiply that by about five, and you’ve got the story line awaiting us Sunday.
But whether this contest is the most anticipated in NFL history remains debatable. Here are some others (listed chronologically) that were hyped to a Himalayan degree because of the stakes, stars and/or story lines involved. Remember, these aren’t the greatest games, per se, in league history, just the most built-up ones.
Bears at Dolphins (Dec. 2, 1985)
Thirty-six years after the 12-0 Bears brought their stout defense, swagger and “Sweetness” (Walter Payton) into the Orange Bowl, this game remains the most-watched Monday Night Football contest ever. Of all the television households actually watching TV that night, 46 percent were tuned into this uber-hyped showdown (according to Nielsen) on a humid south Florida night.
The Bears appeared destined for an undefeated season, which would have infringed on the rarefied air occupied solely by the 1972 Dolphins. In fact, many of those 1972 guys stood ominously on the sideline, like grizzled nightclub bouncers not about to let outsiders in the VIP area.
Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who didn’t start due to a shoulder injury, watched helplessly as Dan Marino exploited Buddy Ryan’s mostly futile blitzes en route to a 21-point Dolphins halftime lead. By night’s end, Marino had thrown for 270 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-24 Dolphins triumph.
Giants at 49ers (Dec. 3, 1990)
This Monday Night Football matchup of 10-1 teams undoubtedly would have topped this list had both not suffered surprising losses the week before. As it stood, this clash at Candlestick Park still shaped up as an NFC title game preview and showcase of the NFL’s top two defenses. On that second note, it didn’t disappoint.
The 49ers answered a short Matt Bahr second-quarter field goal with Joe Montana’s 23-yard scoring strike to John Taylor later in the period for a 7-3 lead. The scoring ended there as neither team mustered any type of ground attack. Seven weeks later, the Giants got their revenge when Bahr’s 42-yard field goal lifted New York to a 15-13 triumph in — you guessed it — the NFC title game.
49ers at Chiefs (Sept. 11, 1994)
Seventeen months after his acrimonious departure from the 49ers (whom he had led to four Super Bowl crowns), Joe Montana faced his old team in a massively hyped early-season game dubbed the “Vindication Bowl.” The Chiefs got 200 credential requests (roughly six times the norm), according to Sports Illustrated, with scalpers reportedly asking for $350 per ticket.
Both Montana and Steve Young, his former backup with whom he had a tense relationship, were upstaged by Chiefs edge rusher Derrick Thomas, who sacked Young three times (one for a safety) in a 24-17 Kansas City victory. Montana passed for 203 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.
Colts at Giants (Sept. 10, 2006)
Billed as Manning Bowl I, this Sunday night season opener was the first NFL game pitting starting quarterbacks who were brothers. The sibling story line delivered splendidly, with Peyton (25 of 41, 276 yards, one touchdown, one interception) and younger brother Eli (20 of 34, 247 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) recording statistical mirror images of each other in the Colts’ 26-21 triumph.
Eli helped lead an 11-play drive that cut the Giants’ deficit to two midway through the fourth, but two ensuing drives were thwarted by controversial penalties.
Patriots at Giants (Dec. 29, 2007)
The Patriots entered this Monday night showdown at Giants Stadium trying to complete a 16-0 regular season. The 10-5 Giants, who already had secured a playoff spot, came off as the consummate spoiler, and nearly played that role to perfection. Behind Eli Manning (four touchdown passes), the Giants led 28-16 in the third quarter — New England’s largest deficit all year — before Tom Brady and Co. went to work.
Brady engineered a 73-yard scoring drive to cut New York’s deficit to five, then found Randy Moss in stride for a 65-yard touchdown early in the fourth for the go-ahead score. New England won, 38-35, but the Giants would get atonement five weeks later in arguably the most dramatic Super Bowl ever.
Vikings at Packers (Nov. 1, 2009)
Roughly 16 months after his messy separation from the Packers, with whom he became a Midwest folk hero, Favre made his first return to Lambeau Field. Amid a massive Monday night chorus of jeering Cheeseheads, Favre and his new team built a three-touchdown lead before Aaron Rodgers rallied the Pack.
Minnesota led by only five with 5½ minutes to play when Favre made a short completion to Adrian Peterson that the tailback converted into a 44-yard gain. Three plays later, he found Bernard Berrian for a 16-yard touchdown, helping seal a 38-26 triumph. It was Favre’s fourth scoring pass of the night.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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