Is Tom Brady vs. the Patriots the biggest game in Boston sports history?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When it comes to the tradition-rich history of Boston sports, where does Tom Brady's return rank?

The legendary quarterback won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, then signed as a free agent in March 2020 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and won a seventh.

Many, but not all, agree Sunday's game between the Brady-led Buccaneers and Bill Belichick-coached Patriots (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) is at the top of the list.

"This one stands alone," says Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, whose first year at the newspaper was 1981. "The six Super Bowls, and then the circumstances of the departure, there's no comparison for that in America. It just doesn't exist.

"This would be like if [Boston Celtics legend] Larry Bird came back with Sacramento, or something. It's unthinkable. That's what this is."

The 68-year-old Shaughnessy, who grew up in Groton, Massachusetts, makes an important distinction.

"It's the biggest regular-season game in the history of Boston sports absent the buildup of pennant races and playoff consequences. So we have to take that out of it, because it's not that," he says, before highlighting why the Boston Red Sox might be No. 1 when looking through that lens.

"The last days of 1967 -- Saturday and Sunday -- you have to be pretty old to remember that. The 'Cardiac Kids,' that was epic, and there was a summer-long buildup to that. They're one game behind the Twins with two to play and they have to win them both. There was no other way to do it. For me, that stands out."

So, too, does Oct. 2, 1978 when the Red Sox and rival New York Yankees -- both at 99 wins -- had a one-game playoff for the American League East Division crown at Fenway Park. That's the day Bucky Dent earned a "new" middle name in Boston.

"Obviously the consequences were just huge; it was win or go home. There was no wild card. That was just it. So I think you have to take those out of there," Shaughnessy says.

In doing so, Michael Holley, the former Globe columnist who now cohosts a nightly Boston-based sports show at NBC Sports Boston, agrees nothing tops Brady's return because of the rare circumstances surrounding it.

"This is an active situation. It's a lot of fresh wounds there. A lot of raw nerves. I don't feel self-conscious saying it's the biggest regular-season game in Boston sports history," he says.

Holley, 51, remembers the buzz of the "Tuna Bowl" in 1997 -- when Bill Parcells returned as head coach of the hated New York Jets after four years leading the Patriots -- but says that doesn't compare because it didn't involve a player or a championship.

He also considers two baseball games involving former Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens -- in July 1997 when he made his first return to Fenway Park as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, and then in May 2000 as a New York Yankee against Boston's Pedro Martinez.

"But that was more animus towards Clemens," he says, a reference to the pitcher having said he wanted to play closer to his Texas home before signing with Toronto.

Steve Buckley, the longtime columnist for the Boston Herald who now writes for The Athletic, highlights the 2007 early November Patriots-Indianapolis Colts matchup (Brady vs. Peyton Manning) as a solid contender, while also citing Clemens when considering some of the city's most memorable regular-season games.

The '97 game when Clemens returned as a Blue Jay was remembered by many for his 16 strikeouts, but also the glare Clemens shot toward the box where Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette sat when walking off the pitcher's mound.

Clemens' return, which was different from Brady's in the sense that it wasn't known that he would be pitching at Fenway until a few days before the game, didn't have the same flavor as 1981 when catcher Carlton Fisk returned as a member of the Chicago White Sox.

"Opening Day, 1981, that was pretty big," says Buckley, 65. "The Sox had screwed up by mailing his contract out late. It went to arbitration, he was ruled to be a free agent, and he promptly signed a deal with the White Sox. Hit a home run off Bob Stanley [and the White Sox won 5-3]."

At the time, Buckley was working in Biddeford, Maine alongside former ESPN.com reporter Jerry Crasnick. They drove to the game together and "I remember Jerry saying, 'You can understand why the fans were booing.'"

Former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri heard some boos in his return with the Colts in 2006, as did former Red Sox outfielder Johnny Damon as a New York Yankee that same year after playing a major role in helping Boston win its first World Series in 86 years in 2004.

"The booing of Vinatieri and Damon always struck me poorly," Shaughnessy says. "Not that it was unanimous, but just to have any voice like that was stupid. Those guys gave great service and left because someone else wanted them more."

Few expect there to be anything but cheers for Brady on Sunday night, although Holley says with a touch of humor: "There are still some Patriots fans who say, 'He didn't have to leave.' And not only did you not have to leave, but you didn’t have to do it on St. Patrick's Day!"

If there was a hockey equivalent, it could have been Boston Bruins great and Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, and how he finished his career with the Chicago Blackhawks. But Orr's only game against the Bruins was played in Chicago.

Another hockey twist came with Hall of Famer Raymond Bourque, the beloved defenseman who played for the Bruins from 1979 to 2000. Seeking a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the first time, he requested a trade in the final years of his career, the Bruins classily granted it, and he won the Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. Bourque's feat was celebrated with a rally in Boston attended by nearly 20,000.

As for the Celtics, they were known for keeping their players too long under championship architect Red Auerbach.

"Once you did service for him, he was very loyal. That was one way he wasn't like Belichick, he had a soft spot," Shaughnessy says.

So, while the Celtics had many memorable regular-season games, nothing comes close to the dynamics surrounding Brady's return. And that's where Upton Bell, the former Patriots general manager whose father, Bert, served as NFL commissioner, provides a contrasting perspective of Sunday's matchup as the biggest regular-season game in the history of Boston sports.

"As somebody who has been watching games since 1946, I would say this: I think what has happened here is basically the controversy and the whole homecoming of somebody who should never have been let go. That's water under the dam now," he says.

"Understanding this is the greatest player since Babe Ruth was let go, I excoriate the media for this, particularly the talk shows. If you ask me, I think the whole thing has been whipped up into a frenzy when it's only a football game."

That's where Bell, 84, believes many are missing the mark.

"The true passion of this game is how it's played, and for me that's where the focus should be -- two of the greatest minds that were ever involved in this game are going to go against each other, one with superior talent [the Buccaneers], and the other one, it's like the [Muhammad] Ali 'rope-a-dope'. Belichick's on the ropes and he has to figure out a way for his team, which is not as good, to beat the greatest quarterback of all time."

When measuring up what is to come Sunday, Bell will allow that it could ultimately be viewed as a great game. Right now, however, he doesn't see it that way.

"The greatest thing about sports is the unpredictability of it," he says. "But if you want to be a realist, and I've seen many of the greatest regular-season games of all-time going back over 70 years, this is not."