Despite a weird offseason, don’t bet against Tom Brady

By ROB MAADDI

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

Brady, 45, did not come back mediocre.

After leading the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns last season, Brady has 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 I arrived here,” Brady said Thursday. “It hasn’t changed at all. We still have to go do it. It does not matter. You should always go out and perform under pressure, which is when the fans are watching and the TV is on. You have to go out there and do a great job.

The Buccaneers fell short in the playoffs against 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 retired Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet is a big hurdle they have to overcome.

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

For Brady, nothing less than a parade of boats in February is a success. He has lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy every other season since 2016.

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

Here are the predictions by division:

NFC EAST: No team has repeated in this division since the Philadelphia Eagles won four straight titles from 2001-2004. 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 AJ Brown to go along with a strong offensive line and improved defense. The Eagles will edge out the Cowboys. Dallas will earn one of three wildcard 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 receiver Davante Adams. With Rodgers, the Packers own the North. Rookie coach Kevin O’Connell will help Minnesota’s offense improve enough to earn a wildcard spot.

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

NFC WEST: The Rams may not come from the NFC, but they’re the best in the West. The 49ers will benefit from keeping Jimmy Garoppolo to support Trey Lance. Coach Kyle Shanahan could turn to Garoppolo at some point and the Niners will earn one of the wildcard spots. Kyler Murray has been 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 upgraded division. The Dolphins gave more protection to Tua Tagovailoa and another playmaker in Tyreek Hill. But Miami will fall short of the playoffs. So will New England, who earned a wildcard spot 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 helped Joe Burrow from the start not to miss completely, but Lamar Jackson will lead Baltimore to the division title while Cincinnati will settle for a wild card.

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

AFC WEST: Russell Wilson’s presence in Denver makes it a four-team race. He will not become the third straight QB to lead his new team to a Super Bowl victory after 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 Kansas City down, Pro Picks will stick with them. Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers missed the playoffs last year due to an overtime loss to the Raiders in Week 18. They will participate this season and not Las Vegas.

___

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

___

More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL