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Tom Brady is set to make his long-awaited return to Gillette Stadium and face his former Patriots team in Week 4 of the 2021 season when his Buccaneers come up from Tampa. It's the game that most NFL fans have circled on their calendars and is arguably the most anticipated regular-season contest in NFL history. Had things gone the way New England reportedly feared initially as the quarterback stepped toward free agency, however, that return would have already taken place last year. 

According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the Patriots "had very real concerns" early in the 2020 offseason that Brady -- the quarterback who helped lead them to 20 years of dominance and all six of their Super Bowl titles -- would sign with the Miami Dolphins once he entered into free agency. Florio cites Brady's relationship with Dolphins minority owner Bruce Beal as one of the main causes for concern for those in Foxborough. 

Given the club's need for a quarterback (they drafted Tua Tagovailoa later that spring) and cap space, a pursuit of Brady would've made sense. That said, even Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wondered aloud at the time why the quarterback would want to head to Miami with the team still rebuilding. There were also later reports pointing to it being more likely Brady becomes a minority owner in the franchise rather than suit up as its quarterback. 

Still, that certainly would have been the worst-case scenario for New England and likely kept them sleeping with one eye open during the early stages of the offseason leading up to free agency. Not only do you lose your franchise icon under this scenario, but he stays within your division to directly compete against you for the next handful of years. That's also not even mentioning that he'd be doing so alongside fellow Bill Belichick protege Brian Flores, who jumped on as Miami's head coach back in 2019. While that'd certainly be great theatre for all of us at home, there was likely an exhale from those in the Patriots organization that Brady's decision to head down to Florida was to the Bucs in the NFC rather than Miami and remain in the AFC East once it became clear he wouldn't be coming back to New England. 

Of course, given Brady's highly-documented competitive nature, the quarterback likely would've embraced going toe-to-toe with his former team within the same division. That said, his decision to join Tampa Bay ultimately proved to be the right call as he was able to help lead them to a Super Bowl LV victory -- the seventh of his career -- right out of the gate.