Tom Brady-led Buccaneers provide blueprint for Patriots' return to top

Kellerman admits Brady proved he could still be the GOAT without Belichick (2:04)

Max Kellerman says Tom Brady "proved everything" by reaching the Super Bowl without Bill Belichick as his coach. (2:04)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It almost felt like it came out of nowhere.

The final seconds were ticking off the clock as the Kansas City Chiefs were closing out the Buffalo Bills in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, and CBS broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo were looking ahead to Super Bowl LV.

Romo: "[Tom] Brady. [Patrick] Mahomes. Wow."

Nantz: "It's just such a delicious matchup, the last two quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl. ... It's going to be a great celebration. A nod before we go, though, to the 'Bills Mafia.' Great things still to come. Everything is exquisitely in place -- the coaching, the roster and, of course, No. 17 [quarterback Josh Allen]; it's going to be a glorious run for the Bills coming up. We're going to see them, I have no doubt, in this spot."

Romo: "They'll be back next year. They will. The AFC is going to be loaded. I'm telling you, New England is going to get back in this thing. I have a feeling, [Bill] Belichick, with that much salary cap, they'll find a way to come back in this thing."

That Belichick's Patriots team was on Romo's mind at that moment -- when the discussion was focused on the QB matchup between Mahomes' Chiefs and Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Feb. 7 (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS) and the Bills' future prospects -- had a bit of randomness to it. It also was a reminder of the national intrigue surrounding the coach's plans to return his team to prominence.

A few hours earlier, another well-known broadcaster contributed to the discussion.

"I can't thank the Patriots [enough] for not keeping this guy. How they ever let him leave is beyond me," ESPN's Dick Vitale said on Twitter, as he pointed to his television screen and a smiling Brady. "But we certainly love that he's wearing a Bucs uniform."

That stings a bit in New England. But it's also reality, and in accepting and exploring the multilayered reasons for it, a road map for where Belichick and the Patriots need to travel comes into focus.

What stands out from the Buccaneers' run to the Super Bowl is that while Brady's leadership and presence has helped will them there -- as coach Bruce Arians noted during Sunday's George Halas Trophy presentation -- it's the across-the-board talent around Brady that has, in turn, provided him a much-needed boost.

The Patriots don't currently have that type of talent, a significant reason Brady departed as a free agent last March.

So the best-case scenario for the Patriots is Belichick taking to heart that the Buccaneers -- not the dynastic Patriots -- gave Brady a better chance to reach his goal of playing until he is 45 (and maybe longer).

How it got to that point, while a worthy topic, means little right now. What Belichick does to address it is all that counts.

As Romo noted, the Patriots are flush with financial flexibility: They are projected to have $50.6 million in salary-cap space in an offseason, when several teams are projected to be restricted by a salary cap that could shrink.

Belichick also has plenty of 2021 NFL draft picks to work with, starting with No. 15, which ESPN draft analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. are projecting will be used on a quarterback. Additional compensatory selections are expected in the third and fourth rounds, one of which is a result of losing Brady.

Belichick's urgency should be high.

When NFL free agency began two years ago, much was made of how Belichick was vacationing in Barbados at the time. Fair or not, it created a perception he was content to be more reactive than proactive while others around the NFL were making decisive moves.

Fast-forward two years and the Patriots' roster is in need of decisive upgrades. Quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and the defensive front seven are among the top needs, and there's growing anticipation about how Belichick will attack them.

Romo shared that viewpoint with a national television audience on Sunday. Brady's presence in Super Bowl LV will only amplify it.