We've spent this week tossing around guesses for team MVP, training camp battles and statistical developments, but we close it out with what's really important: The actual games.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to end their playoff drought in 2018 but they will be tested right away with a first month stacked with 2017 playoff teams as opponents. The middle of the Buccaneers' campaign features a run of road games and the back end is loaded with potentially critical home affairs with division foes. A game against the intriguingly-rebuilt Cleveland Browns may be an underrated delight. Is San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo for real? The Bucs will find out right after Thanksgiving. The Buccaneers are also headed to New York (well, New Jersey) where they've had some crazy games but not a lot of success ultimately. They'll have a chance to change that.
But which of the 16 games on Tampa Bay's regular-season schedule has the most potential to thrill us? That's what Carmen Vitali, Casey Phillips and I have gathered to debate today as we finish up our holiday Roundtable Week. Here is what we've been discussing all week:
Monday: Which player will emerge as a training camp surprise?
Tuesday: Who will be the Buccaneers' team MVP in 2018?
Wednesday: What will be the most interesting position battle in training camp?
Thursday: In what area will the Buccaneers make the biggest statistical improvement in 2018?
Friday: What game on the Buccaneers' 2018 schedule are you anticipating the most?
As previously noted, the three of us are making a point not to duplicate picks during this Roundtable Week. As such, the order of selection is relevant, and we'll be rotating that all week. Carmen is in pole position today, with Casey next to her and me finishing the front row. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!
Carmen Vitali: vs. Philadelphia, Week Two
Well, I'm going first so how I do I NOT pick our home opener against the defending Super Bowl champs? Short answer: I don't.
Sure, there are a million things I could say about the Eagles and how they'll presumably match up with the Bucs, but I'm going to veer a little bit away from the stats and facts for this one. The home opener of any season, against any opponent, is something incredibly special. To me, the moment you finally get to see the fireworks go off as the team runs out of a fog-filled tunnel is better than Christmas morning. The smell of the grass, the muggy late-summer air and the sounds of pads hitting pads echoing throughout a stadium filled with thousands of screaming fans. Come on. It's magic.
And yes, this game will be the first that matters in front of the home crowd in 2018. After a disappointing season last year all I want is vindication, which pales in comparison to how much the players and coaches want to write the wrongs of their previous season, I might add. No matter what happens in New Orleans on the road for Week One, Week Two is going to be electric and I can't wait.
Casey Phillips: vs. Atlanta, Week 17
Carmen of course stole the best pick with the defending Super Bowl champs, from whom we just happened to snatch a few players (Beau Allen and Vinny Curry). If I can't go with that one at the beginning of the year, I decided to head all the way to the back end of the schedule for Bucs vs. Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in week 17.
If you want to have success in the NFL, you have to win in December, and you have to win your home division games. All three of the Bucs' home games against NFC South teams come in December, and with such a strong division, I think this Week 17 matchup could have major playoff implications. We saw the Bucs rise to the occasion to close out last year strong against the Saints, and that was when all they had on the line was their pride and a better feeling heading into the offseason. How much more amped will this regular season home finale be when, hopefully, the playoffs or home field advantage are on the line?
Scott Smith: vs. Pittsburgh, Week Three
I picked last and got my first choice. I know Casey was snaked out of what she thinks is the obvious pick, and there is certainly every reason to anticipate that home opener against the champs. Should be a lot of fun! The one I'm most excited about, however, happens eight days later.
Seriously, it's Monday Night Football we're talking about here! And at home! This one would be high on my list no matter who the opponent was, but it even kills in that department. Tell me there are more than two or three more times more exciting to watch than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh was third in the league in passing last year and its attack features the incomparable Antonio Brown, perhaps the most likely source in the NFL for a "did you see that?!" type of play. The Steelers also have Le'Veon Bell (barring contract problems), arguably the best running back in the NFL and inarguably one of the most fun to watch thanks to his hesitate-and-go style. The ringleader of all that is Ben Roethlisberger, whose ability to escape sacks and extends plays leads to some incredible moments, as well.
And, hey, do you know who ranked fourth in the NFL in passing last year, right behind the Steelers? That would be the Bucs. I think the Monday night air is going to be filled with footballs on September 24 at Raymond James Stadium. Maybe this one will turn into a shootout like the unforgettable MNF showdown with the Rams in 2000, which also took place at Raymond James Stadium. That would be a lot of fun, particularly if the Bucs prevailed as they did against the Rams 18 years ago.
Wait, there's more! That's the Ring of Honor night. Former Head Coach Tony Dungy will be inducted, there will be plenty of players from that very successful era in Buccaneers football hanging around, and the halftime speech should be a great one. This game has it all. I can't wait.