For all the attention the reveal of the NFL schedule gets each spring, it really doesn't change much for the league's players and coaches. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for instance, already knew they had to face rising-star quarterback Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills at some point in 2021. They already knew they had another date with Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams. They were aware that the Washington Football Team's ferocious front four, the Chicago Bears' Khalil Mack and the New Orleans Saints' duo of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas were lurking on the fall schedule somewhere. The schedule release just set the dates and times.
However, there are some ways that getting those dates and times can change your perspective on some of those challenges. How many of those matchups will occur in prime time? Will the Buccaneers get some of their presumably toughest opponents in the row? Will there be long road swings?
Well, like you, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali, Team Reporter Casey Phillips and I now know the answers to those questions and more. And that brings to mind this question: Now that we can see how the games are arranged, what looks like the toughest stretch of weeks on the Bucs' 2021 schedule? That's the fifth and final topic in our schedule-related Roundtable Week and our discussion for today. Here are all the topics we've debated this week:
Monday, May 17: What is your most anticipated game on the Bucs' 2021 schedule?
Tuesday, May 18: Who is the top rookie opponent on the Bucs' schedule?
Wednesday, May 19: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's defense?
Thursday, May 20: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's offense?
Friday, May 21: What is the toughest stretch of games on this year's schedule?
There's no duplication of picks (though in this case some overlapping is acceptable), so once again we're rotating the order of selections. Carmen gets first choice on this one, followed by me and then Casey. So what do we think: After which stretch in this season will we be breathing a sigh of relief that it's over.
Carmen Vitali: Weeks 12-14
This is tough because there are myriad ways you could define 'tough' and I'm having trouble figuring out which way to go, honestly. The Bucs will go coast to coast in Week Three and Week Four when they play the Rams in Los Angeles followed by the Patriots in New England. They'll face three-straight 2020 playoff teams from Week 7-10, but they get their Bye Week in that span. I think I'm going to lean later in the season, when the games could potentially mean more, and Tampa Bay will have to face some pretty insane offenses between Weeks 12 and 14, playing the Colts, Falcons and Bills in succession (with the Saints on the other side).
I'm not including the Saints because they are still a major question mark with all the turnover they experienced this offseason, not least of which was the departure and retirement of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. But the Colts, Falcons and Bills have offenses we know are good. The Colts and Bills finished the regular season in the top 10 and Atlanta had the fifth-ranked passing offense, specifically. The Colts and Bills also made significant playoff runs in 2020 thanks to their offensive productivity, with Buffalo especially coming into their own thanks to Josh Allen taking a huge leap forward this past season. The addition of Stefon Diggs was huge, to the tune of Diggs' 1,535 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The Bills added Emmanuel Sanders this offseason in an effort to hopefully tip the scales and get them into the Super Bowl after being so close last year.
Meanwhile, the Colts are about to see if the Carson Wentz experiment can work in their favor this year. Indianapolis showed flashes of brilliance on both sides of the ball last season and it was enough to get them into the postseason for the second time in three seasons. Their rookie running back Jonathan Taylor had 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns in just his first year as a pro while the Colts still managed the league's 11th-best passing offense, even with an aging Philip Rivers at the helm. Head Coach Frank Reich was Wentz's first offensive coordinator when he was drafted by Philadelphia in 2016 and coached him through his best pro season the following year. He's hoping to replicate that success with Wentz now in Indy and he has a ready-made offense to make it happen.
Those are likely going to be two contenders come that stretch of the season and Atlanta's high-flying offense won't be a walk in the park to break them up. I'd say that'll be pretty tough, right?
Scott Smith: Weeks 3-6
Carmen listed three possibilities and then picked one. I'd complain about that taking the steam out of my answer, but unfortunately I've been guilty of the exact same approach multiple times during our various Roundtable Weeks in recent years. The sword cuts both ways.
I like Carmen's first option, Weeks 3-4 at the Rams and Patriots, but I'll expand it a bit to make it a unique answer. I'm on record in last week's S.S. Mailbag choosing the Rams when asked who I thought was the most challenging opponent on the Bucs' 2021 schedule, so you obviously know how I feel about the Week Three cross-country trip to Los Angeles. The Rams had the best defense in the NFL last year and I don't see why it would be any worse in 2021. (Checks Ram's roster – yep, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are still there.) And the offense, which the Bucs struggled to contain last year, probably got an upgrade from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford.
Now, Bruce Arians recently said, without any real prompting, that he wasn't worried about the travel in Week Three being an issue for the Bucs in Week Four when they hit the road again for perhaps the most anticipated regular-season NFL game in years. He would know better than me, but that was a specific concern I had when I first saw the schedule. The Buccaneers were markedly better than Tom Brady's old team last year and we don't know yet – and may not have a great feel by Week Four – how much New England has improved with its free agency spending spree. Chances are the Patriots are back to being playoff contenders in 2021 but even if that doesn't prove true this game is still going to be stressful simply due to all the attention that will be heaped on "Brady-vs.-Belichick I."
That's a lot to deal with in two weeks, so it's nice that the Bucs then get a simple 1:00 p.m. home game in Week Five. However, it's against the Dolphins, who could be one of the NFL's sneaky-good teams in 2021. They gave Tua Tagovailoa some scary new weapons in Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller and retooled the offensive a little by moving Robert Hunt to guard and drafting Liam Eichenberg to play right tackle. They also added a pass-rusher they badly needed in Jaelan Phillips in the first round.
But the Bucs can't get comfortable at home even if they beat the Dolphins because they have to turn right around and jet out to Philadelphia for a Thursday night road game in Week Six. No, I don't think the Eagles are one of the tougher opponents on Tampa Bay's schedule this year, but simply having to go on the road on a short week after those previous three contests adds to how tough this month of football will be for the Bucs to navigate.
Casey Phillips: Weeks 14-18
I think going last this time was retribution for getting to go first on the "most anticipated game" roundtable. You guys definitely took both stretches I would have picked, so I'll cheat a bit and use one game in Carmen's selection to pull into mine.
The Bills game has been mentioned in a few of these roundtables and Carmen's answer above so I won't expand too much on why that will be a big game at week 14 in the schedule. But then right after that tough matchup, the Bucs will have three out of the last four games of the season facing division opponents. While both the Saints and Panthers have a lot of question marks and might not be picked as the toughest part of the schedule on their own, you can never overlook a division game in December.
Assuming the Bucs will be trying to lock up a playoff spot in that stretch, those three games could have huge implications for seeding and trying to win the division. Plus, this will be the first time the team will be facing that extra game in week 18, and who knows what the fatigue or injury situation could be? Of course we hope that won't be a factor, but anytime something is new in the NFL, you never know what the effects will be.