Tom Brady takes a leap into the unknown on Sunday as the NFL icon launches the final phase of his two-decade career with a long-awaited debut for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the New Orleans Saints.
The 43-year-old stunned the NFL in March after quitting the New England Patriots, leaving the team after a 20-year association that yielded a slew of accolades including six Super Bowl wins.
Brady's choice of new team also raised eyebrows, with the veteran quarterback joining a Tampa Bay franchise that has not reached the playoffs since 2007 and has all too often served as an NFL punchline.
Brady is determined to end his career with a flourish under head coach Bruce Arians, who has strengthened his quarterback's receiving options by tempting former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski out of his single-season retirement.
Yet the impact of COVID-19, which forced the cancellation of the entire pre-season schedule, means that Brady will have to hit the ground running when the Buccaneers face a powerful Saints squad in New Orleans on Sunday.
"The reality hit me today that we're actually getting ready to play a game," Brady told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.
"We've got live contact, live football, real results. And it's something I haven't done in nine months. We're going to have to get up to speed quickly.
"First quarter is going to be new for everybody, just getting our feet wet. Hopefully, I can recall some of the things I've done over a period of time and go out there and try to play a solid football game against a great team."
- Learning curve -
While Brady says he has settled well in Florida, which he chose ahead of overtures from the Los Angeles Chargers, the quarterback admits he won't have a clear idea of Tampa Bay's capabilities until Sunday arrives.
"We realize there's going to be a learning curve associated with how to get up to speed, and how to be our best," Brady said.
"We're going to figure out what we're good at and what we're not good at. I wish we knew those things right now. But I think the reality is we don't. It's a big test."
Unquestionably, Brady will benefit from having the larger-than-life Gronkowski as one of his passing options.
One of the 31-year-old's last acts as a Patriots player was plucking a 29-yard pass from Brady under intense pressure to help set up New England's Super Bowl win over the Los Angeles Rams last year.
Gronkowski says Brady has looked as motivated as ever in practice.
"From my eyes, just looking at him, he looks refreshed," Gronkowski told reporters. "He looks ready to go. He looks ready to play every single day, and he's motivated every day.
"It's nice to see. The way he just goes out there and works, it gets everyone better. It just elevates everyone's game when he's out there."
- Beating Father Time -
It may well be that this season marks the beginning of the end for the NFL quarterback fraternity's elder statesman.
Brady's Saints counterpart on Sunday, Drew Brees, who turns 42 in January, admitted this week he is on "borrowed time."
Sunday's clash marks the first time in NFL history that both starting quarterbacks will be over the age of 40.
"I've always used the term 'prolong your prime,'" Brees said this week. "At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to do. Father Time is going to get us at some point. But we're trying to beat him out right now."
Brady's duel with Brees is the pick of the opening weekend's Sunday fixtures, which also sees the Rams inaugurate their new $5 billion home, SoFi Stadium, believed to be the most expensive venue of its kind in the world.
COVID-19 restrictions mean, however, that like the majority of NFL stadiums this season, no fans will be allowed.
The Rams, aiming to bounce back after their failure to reach the playoffs last season, host the Dallas Cowboys, who themselves are rebuilding under new coach Mike McCarthy.
Meanwhile in New England, the Patriots will get their first look at life in the post-Brady era, with Cam Newton expected to start as quarterback against Miami following his release from the Carolina Panthers.