The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off their Super Bowl defense and the 2021 NFL season on Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys. The ageless Tom Brady will be at it again, seeking an unprecedented eighth Super Bowl victory at 44 years old. Brady will have mostly the same supporting cast, from tight end Rob Gronkowski to wide receiver Mike Evans, as the team returns all 11 starters on offense (and defense).
It's a track record the Cowboys can only hope to achieve. America's Team has taken their share of "Hard Knocks," both in the HBO series this summer and through a slew of injuries that turned a promising 2020 season sour. After sitting out the preseason, franchise quarterback Dak Prescott will make his first throw in an NFL game in nearly a year, supposedly fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered last October against the New York Giants.
Prescott wasn't the only one banged up. Tight end Blake Jarwin is back from an ACL tear that knocked him out virtually all of 2020; Pro Bowl offensive lineman Tyron Smith had season-ending neck surgery around the same time as Prescott's injury. Another offensive lineman, La'el Collins, missed all 16 games with a hip injury. The hope for Dallas is these key contributors returning give them an edge in the league’s weakest division, the NFC East.
We'll find out quickly where Dallas stands against one of the NFL's top teams. If there's hope for them in the opener, it's that Brady understands this newly-minted 17-game season is a marathon, not a sprint. Just 4-3 in his last seven season openers, Brady's team fell victim to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in their debut last year.
Of course, where is Brees now? On the sidelines as an NBC analyst, retiring from football at 42. So even if Dallas somehow pulls off an upset, Brady's earned the right not to bet against him over the long haul.
Thursday Night Football: Dallas at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Thurs., Sept. 9 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Buccaneers -8
Three Things To Watch
1. How will Dak Prescott perform?
It's rare the performance of another quarterback overshadows Tom Brady. But all eyes will be on Prescott, from a competitive and even fantasy standpoint.
Keep in mind a right latissimus strain added insult to injury for Prescott, keeping him off the preseason field this summer. Speculation has run wild since, with ESPN's Adam Schefter claiming Prescott's "Not fully back. He may not be fully back all season long."
The quarterback disputes that claim. And the Cowboys? They've got a four-year, $160 million extension riding on the answer.
"I plan to come out starting fast," Prescott told The Athletic. "I plan to come out better than I was last year, to be honest. That's just the work that I've put in going all the way back to February when I got back on the field. I'm excited for it."
A major key for Tampa Bay's defense in Week 1 is how quickly they can get to Prescott in the pocket. They start with an edge: a positive COVID-19 test for All-Pro offensive guard Zack Martin leaves them vulnerable on the right side of the line. Can a team that was tied for third in the NFC last year with 48 sacks break through early and often?
With returning players, keeping them uncomfortable early is key so they never find a rhythm. The way Prescott plays in the first quarter is crucial.
2. Tampa Bay's offensive weapons
Brady has an All-Star list of superstars to throw to, from the top rungs of Gronkowski and Evans down to new offseason pickup Giovani Bernard as a change-of-pace back. How quickly can they pick up where that Super Bowl victory left off?
Gronk had just two catches last year in the first two games. Evans caught one ball for two yards in that season-opening loss against the Saints. They'll need to do better, and should, against a Cowboys defense that ranked 23rd overall last season.
Thursday night will be a key test of how Bernard, in particular, fits into the offense. The Cowboys were second-to-last against the run, allowing almost five yards per rushing attempt. Leonard Fournette will be licking his chops; despite a strong 2020 postseason, his last 100-yard game for the Bucs was way back in Week 2 of last season against the Carolina Panthers.
Expect a lot of sprinkling in the run, especially with a few wide receivers like Antonio Brown (knee) and Chris Godwin (quad) battling injuries.
3. Can the Cowboys' defense make a statement?
Dallas went out this past offseason and did their best to make over their defense. Former head coach Dan Quinn comes over from the Atlanta Falcons, taking on the role of defensive coordinator. The team made six straight selections on defense, all coming within the first 115 picks as they look to build young talent for the future.
First-round pick Micah Parsons is set to make an immediate impact, starting at linebacker alongside former Pro Bowler Leighton Vander Esch. The hope is the two can combine to become a dynamic duo after Vander Esch missed a total of 13 games the past two years due to injury.
It's a group that has potential; last year, the Cowboys forced 23 takeaways, tied for seventh in the NFL. Problem was, they allowed 30-plus points in five of their first six games. You can't give up that much to good offenses and expect to win. Can they force Brady into some early turnovers?
Dallas enters the game dealing with a series of question marks. The Bucs have all their ducks in a row. Add in a home game as the season opener and there's motivation to perform on a night they honor their Super Bowl victory.
The Cowboys, if Prescott plays well and Ezekiel Elliott breaks through for a couple of big runs, have enough offensive firepower to keep it close. But it's hard to see them pulling an upset with so many kinks to work out entering Week 1.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 31, Dallas 21
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.