On Football: Despite offseason, don’t bet against Tom Brady

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tom Brady’s 11-day absence from training camp following a 40-day retirement earlier this year has some people doubting the seven-time Super Bowl champion’s focus entering his 23rd season in the NFL.

The 45-year-old Brady didn’t come back to be mediocre.

After leading the NFL in yards passing and touchdowns last season, Brady returned to chase “unfinished business.” His goal is an eighth ring and second in three years with the Tampa...

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tom Brady’s 11-day absence from training camp following a 40-day retirement earlier this year has some people doubting the seven-time Super Bowl champion’s focus entering his 23rd season in the NFL.

The 45-year-old Brady didn’t come back to be mediocre.

After leading the NFL in yards passing and touchdowns last season, Brady returned to chase “unfinished business.” His goal is an eighth ring and second in three years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I’ve always been very confident in our team, from the day that I got here,” Brady said Thursday. “That hasn’t changed at all. We’ve still got to go do it. It doesn’t matter. You’ve still got to go out there and execute under pressure, which is when the fans are watching and the TV is turned on. You’ve got to go out there and do a great job.”

The Buccaneers fell short in the playoffs against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams last season. They lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement — for now — and added wide receivers Julio Jones and Russell Gage. Losing Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen to a knee injury and Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet to retirement is a big obstacle they must overcome.

“In our offensive line, you protect the quarterback no matter who it is,” left tackle Donovan Smith said. “When you’ve got the GOAT back there, you have got to do a little better. So, we’re going to go out there … and do what we’re supposed to do. It’s just one of those things that we get paid to do. We’re out there to protect and have fun.”

For Brady, anything less than a boat parade in February isn’t a success. He has hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy every other season since 2016.

FanDuel Sportsbook gives the Buccaneers the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl at +750 behind only the Buffalo Bills, who are +600. Pro Picks has both teams reaching the Super Bowl but takes Brady and the Buccaneers over the Bills.

Here are predictions per division:

NFC EAST: No team has repeated in this division since the Philadelphia Eagles won four titles in a row from 2001-04. The Eagles reached the playoffs last season under first-year coach Nick Sirianni and second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. They revamped the roster, adding wide receiver A.J. Brown to go with a strong offensive line and improved defense. The Eagles will edge the Cowboys. Dallas will earn one of the three wild-card spots.

NFC NORTH: The Green Bay Packers have won 13 games and finished first in three straight seasons under coach Matt LaFleur. They just can’t win in the playoffs. Two-time reigning AP NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers may have something to prove with the departure of All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams. With Rodgers, the Packers own the North. Rookie coach Kevin O’Connell will help Minnesota’s offense improve enough to get a wild-card berth.

NFC SOUTH: Even if the Buccaneers get swept by the Saints for the third straight season, they’ll still finish on top. Jameis Winston is back for New Orleans but coach Sean Payton is gone. The Saints will hover around .500.

NFC WEST: The Rams may not come out of the NFC but they’re the best in the West. The 49ers will benefit from keeping Jimmy Garoppolo around to back up Trey Lance. Coach Kyle Shanahan may turn to Garoppolo at some point and the Niners will earn one of the wild-card spots. Kyler Murray got paid to win big games but the Cardinals will struggle to get in.

AFC EAST: Josh Allen will be in the mix for MVP and the talented Bills are the team to beat in an improved division. The Dolphins gave Tua Tagovailoa more protection and another playmaker in Tyreek Hill. But Miami will fall short of the playoffs. So will New England, which earned a wild-card berth last year with rookie QB Mac Jones.

AFC NORTH: Three of the last six teams to lose the Super Bowl missed the playoffs the following season. The Bengals gave Joe Burrow help upfront so they won’t miss out entirely, but Lamar Jackson will lead Baltimore to the division title while Cincinnati settles for a wild card.

AFC SOUTH: Matt Ryan replaced Carson Wentz in Indianapolis and he’ll be the difference-maker, giving the Colts an advantage over Ryan Tannehill and the Titans. Tennessee earned the No. 1 seed last season but didn’t win a playoff game. The slide will continue and it will miss the playoffs.

AFC WEST: Russell Wilson’s presence in Denver makes it a four-team race. He won’t become the third straight QB to lead his new team to a Super Bowl victory following Brady and Matthew Stafford. But Wilson will help the Broncos end their playoff drought. The division still runs through Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Until a team knocks off Kansas City, Pro Picks will stick with them. Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers missed the playoffs last year because of an overtime loss to the Raiders in Week 18. They’ll get in this season and Las Vegas won’t.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robmaaddi

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