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Who's First? Four Potential Opening-Day Foes

Posted Apr 12, 2018

With the release of the NFL's 2018 schedule imminent, we look at four possible opponents the Buccaneers could be paired with in Week One

On Wednesday, the NFL revealed its 2018 preseason schedule, which includes a nationally-televised game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That appetizer heralded the imminent arrival of the main course: the full, 256-game regular-season schedule, which is likely to be announced next week.

That is the more anticipated news, of course, and Buccaneer fans have an additional reason to be eager for the schedule drop: For the first time, they'll be able to buy single-game tickets as soon as the schedule is revealed.

As close as the schedule is to being announced, it is still shrouded in almost complete secrecy. Even the highest-ranking team officials only find out the details hours before it is revealed to the public at large. Every team has known its 16 game opponents for the 2018 season since the moment the 2017 campaign ended, but they won't be able to attach a when to the who until next week.

And that leaves us guessing in the final days before the schedule is revealed. Predicting 16 games is a bit unrealistic, so we specifically want to guess where the Buccaneers' season begins, just as we did last year (with rather good success!). That opening-day opponent is the first thing that coaches and players look at because they know they'll be targeting that team specifically for the next five months.

Will the Buccaneers get to start off at home for the first time in three years? Will they get an NFC South opponent in Week One, like they did in 2016 but unlike last season when the division schedule was heavily backloaded? Will there be any special matchups influencing the opening-day pick, such as the maybe coincidental pairing of rookie quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in 2015?

Who knows? But we can guess, and hopefully do as well as last year, when our four picks included both the originally-scheduled opener (at Miami) and the actual first game after Hurricane Irma (vs. Chicago). Below are four potential opening-day opponents for the Buccaneers in 2018; we can only hope to be as lucky as last year.

1. New Orleans (home)

As noted briefly above, the Buccaneers didn't get much intradivision play in the early-going a year ago. Their first game against an NFC South opponent was in Week Eight, four of its last six games were division play. Other than a Week Three Carolina-New Orleans matchup, the entire NFC South intradivision schedule was played from November on.

It's easy to see how such a schedule could lead to a very entertaining division race down the stretch, but that doesn’t mean it's a typical set-up. The Buccaneers had at least two games against division foes within their first five outings in each of the previous three seasons. In the 16 seasons since the NFC South was formed in 2002, Tampa Bay has opened its schedule against a division foe five times, or about once every three years. The Bucs and Saints, however, have not met in Raymond James Stadium for an opener since that first NFC South season of 2002. (It was a weird game that ended on an overtime interception thrown by a punter, with the Saints getting the Buccaneers' Super Bowl season started off with a loss.) The two teams also had a Week One game in 2008, in New Orleans.

Last year, seven of the 16 games on the NFL schedule as a whole pitted two division teams against each other. That was a high-water mark for the last five years; the numbers has fluctuated between three and seven such games since 2013. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, but it's clear that the NFL doesn't have any problem starting a team off against a division opponent.

Why the Saints in particular? On one hand, we're just playing the odds here. The Buccaneers opened in Atlanta two years ago and had Carolina in town for Week One 2012 and 2014. Plus, that matchup would allow the league also pit Atlanta and Carolina against each other, and that has become a pretty fierce rivalry that, in this case, would be a matchup of two 2017 playoff teams. This is also not uncommon, having all four division teams in play against each other in Week One; the AFC North did it last year and the Bucs own division did it in 2014.

More than that, there seems to be a growing bit of enmity between the Buccaneers and Saints. Last year's game in New Orleans was marked by a sideline scuffle that led to a one-game suspension for Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. The rematch came in Week 17 and the Buccaneers managed to beat a playoff-bound Saints team that was not resting its starters. Much has been made of the postgame handshake between Dirk Koetter and Sean Payton, though both coaches have subsequently expressed nothing but respect for each other.

2. New York Giants (away)

Fun fact: The Giants and Cowboys have played in Week One in each of the last three years, and in five of the last six. Maybe those two could use a break from each other, huh?

That seems like a weird run for Dallas and New York, but it's not hard to figure out. Those two have one of the NFL's most classic rivalries, and it's a ready-made choice for the schedule-makers when it comes to setting up Week One prime-time games. The Cowboys-Giants game was the Sunday-nighter in Week One last year, and in 2015, and in 2013, and in 2012 it was the league's kickoff game coming off the Giants' Super Bowl win.

However, a Giants-Cowboys game this year would pit a 3-13 team against a 9-7 non-playoff squad. This is probably a good opportunity for the league to highlight a different rivalry on that first Sunday night, perhaps even two of the three playoff teams from the NFC South. That would leave the Buccaneers and Giants free, and there are some entertaining reasons to pair them up.

For one, both were popular picks as NFC playoff contenders in 2017 before stumbling. The Giants, coming off an 11-5 campaign in 2016, struggled with injuries and chose to replace its coaching staff. The Buccaneers had a promising 9-7 run in 2016 but had a dismal record in close games last fall and also dealt with a few key injuries of their own. There is reason to believe that both of these teams are poised for a significant rebound and could be fighting each other for a playoff spot in December.

This matchup would also showcase two of the NFL's brightest young receiving stars. Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and New York's Odell Beckham were the seventh and 12th picks, respectively, in the 2014 draft, and both have more than lived up to those selections. Evans just became the third player in league history to open his career with four straight 1,000-yard receiving campaigns, and Beckham undoubtedly would have joined him if he hadn't missed three-quarters of the season due to injury.

And, finally, the late-March trade of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul from the Giants to the Buccaneers adds a significant connective thread to this potential Week One rivalry. Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht says that Pierre-Paul plays with a chip on his shoulder, and it's reasonable to assume that motivation would be extra sharp in a rematch with the team that sent him away.

3. San Francisco (home)

This prediction is based on one man: John Lynch.

In January of 2017, the rebuilding 49ers made a surprising and intriguing move, hiring former Buccaneer hero John Lynch to be their new general manager and pairing him with first-year Head Coach Kyle Shanahan. Lynch intelligent, thoughtful and deeply respected in every circle of the game, but he notably had no prior team management experience.

So far, so good in San Francisco. The 49ers understandably took some lumps in 2017 but some aggressive personnel maneuvers eventually started to pay off. Most notably, a trade for former New England backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looks like a long-term franchise-changer; after the 49ers went 5-0 in Garoppolo's first five starts to finish out the season, the team and player hammered out an enormous new five-year contract to keep him around.

The 49ers also added cornerback Richard Sherman and running back Jerick McKinnon and, if not for the downstate Rams, might seem like the most aggressively going-for-it team in California. Either way, San Francisco is likely to be a team the NFL wants to spotlight in 2018.

So why send them to Tampa in Week One? For one thing, if you're a West Coast team that has to come all the way east at some point, you might as well get it over with early when your team is still relatively rested. Perhaps the NFL keeps that in mind and cuts them a break. We know from the most recent league meetings that West Coast teams are already concerned about their long trips, trying to get the league to schedule mostly late-afternoon games when they head east.

The real hook here, though, is Lynch. A nine-time Pro Bowler who was a key figure in the Buccaneers' run to the 2002 Super Bowl championship, Lynch was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor in 2016. He'd be able to see his name and familiar #47 on the Raymond James Stadium façade as he brought his new club to town.

4. Baltimore (away)

The Buccaneers have only four games against AFC opponents, so the odds of one of them coming up on Week One are a little slimmer than an NFC choice. Still, inter-conference matchups on opening weekend are not uncommon. There were only two of them last year, but there were a whopping 10 in 2016. The average over the last five years is 4.5 inter-conference games on Week One.

The NFC South is scheduled to play the AFC North this year, so that limits the inter-conference choices to Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Steelers, who have been perennial playoff contenders of late and have such marquee players as Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, are a good bet to be included in one of the highest-profile games of Week One, so let's eliminate them. Given all of their recent moves and the strong likelihood that they'll have a highly-drafted rookie quarterback on their squad (though not necessarily starting in Week One), the Browns are surrounded by a bit of intrigue. Let's guess they'll be matched up against their in-state rival, Cincinnati, in Week One.

That leaves us with Baltimore, and now we'll get to main reason we picked the Ravens as our AFC Wild Card choice: They're due!

As noted above, inter-conference play in Week One is not uncommon at all. All but six of the NFL's 32 teams has started a season with a non-conference foe within the last five years. The Bucs have done it three times in that span, and so have Jacksonville, Miami and Washington. However, inter-conference openers have been uncommon for the Ravens. Very uncommon.

The last time Baltimore opened its season against an NFC team was 2006…coincidentally with a trip to Tampa. The Ravens are the only AFC team that has not had an inter-conference opener since. In all of the NFL, only San Francisco has gone longer without starting against an opponent from the other conference (they haven't done so since 1999!).

Like we said, the Ravens are due, and maybe the Buccaneers' acquisition for former Baltimore center Ryan Jensen in free agency will add just a bit more spice to the mix.