Bucs’ Tom Brady embraces new challenge of the competitive NFC South

Tom Brady, shown in this file photo from an Oct. 5, 2017 game against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium. Brady has signed with the Buccaneers. (Tampa Bay Times/TNS)
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By Eduardo A. Encina Tampa Bay Times (TNS)

TAMPA, Fla. — Along with adjusting to a new team, a new coaching staff and a group of entirely new teammates, new Bucs quarterback Tom Brady will also have to adapt to playing in a new division.

Brady’s Patriots dominated the AFC East, winning the division 17 of the past 19 seasons (The Jets won in 2002 and the Dolphins won in 2008). Taking claim of the NFC South will be a more daunting task. He will trade in the brisk Northeast weather for some sweltering early-season games in Tampa Bay. But that’s just the beginning.

The NFC South has been known as a quarterback’s division — and it just added the best quarterback of all time — but that’s just part of the reason it’s been one of the league’s most competitive. And even though he last played the NFC South teams in 2017, Brady seems to realize that.

“It’s a good division with good quarterbacks, very good offenses and very athletic defenses, too,” Brady said Tuesday of the NFC South. “Winning the division is always the hard thing to do. These teams know each other so well and I didn’t play this division but once every four years, so I’ve got to learn the players, I’ve got to learn the schemes. There’s a lot of things I have to learn and get up to speed on.”

The Saints have won the past three division titles. And moving to the NFC South means that Brady will face New Orleans’ Drew Brees twice a year in a matchup of the two most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history. Brees leads all quarterbacks in career passing yardage (77,416) and touchdowns (547) while Brady is No. 2 (74,571; 541).

It’s a division with veteran franchise quarterbacks. Brees is back at age 41. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, 34, enters his 13th NFL season. Brees’ former backup in New Orleans, 27-year-old Teddy Bridgewater, will take over for longtime fixture Cam Newton in Carolina.

Those quarterbacks have some of the best receiving weapons at their disposal. Last season, just four wideouts averaged more than 85 receiving yards a game, and they were all from the NFC South: the Saints’ Michael Thomas (107.8 yards per game), the Bucs’ Chris Godwin (95.2 ypg), the Falcons’ Julio Jones (92.9 ypg) and the Bucs’ Mike Evans (89.0 ypg).

Likewise, defenses in the division are built to counter the dangerous offenses that exist. You can’t win the South without playing defense.

Since the NFL went to eight four-team divisions in 2002, the Bucs have won the NFC South just three times — during their 2002 Super Bowl season, and in 2005 and 2007. Those are also their only playoff appearances in that stretch, while every other team has made the postseason at least seven times. In 2017, the Bucs were the only division team to not make the postseason.

Brees owns a 3-2 head-to-head advantage over Brady, though Brady has won the past two meetings. His career 116.7 quarterback rating against the Falcons is his best against any opponent, and he led the largest comeback in Super Bowl history against Atlanta three years ago. Carolina is one of two teams that Brady has a losing record against (2-3). The last time Brady played the NFC South in the regular season was 2017, and he beat three of the four teams, losing only to the Panthers.

As he was introduced as a Buc on Tuesday, Brady offered no promises. He didn’t predict a division title or even a playoff berth, only that he’d work as hard as he always has to be the best he can be and lead along the way. Most of the time, that’s been good enough for Brady.

But this will all be new, learning unfamiliar defenses will take time. But Brady said his priority will be familiarizing himself with his new teammates more than necessarily the competition.

“That’s where all my time and energy will be focused on and also learning my teammates, guys like Mike (Evans) and Chris (Godwin), O.J. (Howard), Cam (Brate). A lot of skill players — Ronald Jones and obviously the offensive line, who is a very talented group,” Brady said. “A lot of things for me to focus on and a lot of time and energy is going to be spent on getting up to speed with the tactical things of how I can do the best job for the team.

“Anything outside of that is really in essence not a high priority for me. Not to say things are unimportant, it’s just I’ve got to be able to prioritize my time and energy so I can learn what I need to learn and go out there and do a great job for this organization.”

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