Three years is an eternity in the NFL. Successful teams tend to alternate regularly. Players switch rosters all the time. No two seasons tend to look remotely similar.
Two years and eight months ago, things were a whole lot different.
The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots were set to do battle in Super Bowl LII. On one side, there was Nick Foles and his team of underdogs. On the other, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England dynasty.
On that night in Minnesota, Foles came out on top in a stunning 41-33 shootout, and even though Foles has been in the league since 2012, it was the only time he has faced Brady.
That is until Thursday night, when the 3-1 Chicago Bears take on the 3-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their new starting quarterbacks on show.
Change of scenery, but similar situations
Back then – during the 2017 season – while Brady and Foles had fantastic years with their teams, the Bears and Bucs didn’t fare so well.
Both teams actually finished 5-11 and fourth in their respective divisions, and will have been sitting at home watching the David vs Goliath bout. But they have also both made drastic changes since then.
For Chicago, John Fox was let go after that year with Matt Nagy heading over from Kansas City to replace him.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, gave Dirk Koetter one more shot to turn it around, but a second straight 5-11 record was enough to see him fired, with former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians coming out of retirement to replace him ahead of last season.
Now, we are back in a relatively similar situation as when the two faced off in February, 2018.
Brady’s high-powered Bucs
Brady’s Buccaneers, based on their quarterback, outstanding surrounding weapons, experienced coaching staff and solid defense, were a summer Vince Lombardi Trophy favourite. They have been regarded as contenders from the moment the six-time Super Bowl winner signed on the dotted line.
Through four games, they have averaged 30 points but impressively, their defense has allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league (312 per game).
Brady and company were finding their feet in a 34-23 Week One loss on the road to the Saints but bounced back by comfortably dismissing the Panthers (31-17) and Broncos (28-10).
But the most impressive showing so far has been their miraculous 17-point comeback against the Chargers last week. Down 24-7 late in the second quarter, Brady went on to throw four touchdown passes (he already had one) in a remarkable 369-yard, five-TD outing.
They do not have the aura of the Patriots juggernaut, but we know already a postseason appearance is the least to expect from a Brady-led team.
Foles finding his feet
Meanwhile, despite a winding road to the Windy City for Foles (he was let go by the Eagles after the 2018 season, signed in Jacksonville, supplanted by Gardner Minshew after an injury, and traded to Chicago this summer), he has made the starting lineup to a similar fashion as in Philadelphia.
In 2017, Foles watched from the bench before Carson Wentz left with a torn ACL, allowing Philadelphia’s hero to swoop in and save the day. This time around, despite losing out in an offseason quarterback battle, Foles has again supplanted the starter.
2017 No 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky has been overwhelmingly underwhelming during his three-and-a-bit year career, and head coach Matt Nagy axed him midway through the team’s Week Three game in Atlanta despite a 2-0 record through two games.
Like he did in Philadelphia, Foles stepped in and secured a win. And this one was special, as he led a 16-point comeback and threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
Last week, in his first start, we didn’t see the magical Foles we have come to expect based on his postseason performances in Philly, as the Bears were handed their first loss of the season by Indianapolis.
Foles was 26 of 42 for 249 yards and a touchdown, a pick, and a 76.4 quarterback rating in the loss, but even in Philadelphia, he needed a game or two to grow accustomed to the offense.
The question now will be: how quickly will he feel comfortable in the attack? After the Bucs, Chicago are on the road against the Panthers (2-2) and Rams (3-1), they return to host the Saints (2-2), then are away again at Tennessee (3-0).
What can we expect on Thursday night?
Despite this being built up as Brady versus Foles, it is clearly more than that. Buccaneers leading receiver Mike Evans has the most touchdown receptions in the league right now (five). Linebacker Lavonte David was the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month in September.
Edge rusher Shaq Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last season, and rookies Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr are looking like seasoned veterans already. This team has talent all over the field.
Statistically, Chicago have been leaning on their defense so far this season – and that is why Foles is in. They have allowed the seventh-fewest points (20.3 per game) but have only been able to score 21.3 per game.
Linebacker Roquan Smith flies around the field, and has an impressive 33 tackles and 5.5 tackles for losses. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is having a fantastic start, with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 TFLs from the interior. Then, of course, there is Khalil Mack, who must always be accounted for.
Since joining the Bears in 2018, Mack is one of three players (Chandler Jones and T.J. Watt) with at least 20 sacks (22.5) and 10 forced fumbles (11).
On offense, Foles is tasked with getting the best from former Pro Bowler Allen Robinson, who has had to overcome weak quarterback play his entire career. Robinson is one of two NFC wide receivers (Tyler Lockett) with at least 25 receptions (25), 300 receiving yards (331) and two touchdown catches (two) this season, and he is capable of a huge season.
Will Brady and his favoured Buccaneers come out on top? Or will Foles and the underdogs once again spoil the party?