The NFL released its regular-season schedule on Wednesday evening and we now know that the most anticipated game of 2021 – Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers versus Bill Belichick's New England Patriots – will be played on a Sunday night in Week Four.
Frankly, the timing of the game is a good thing. The attention around this contest is going to be massive, and potentially distracting to the players. The media demands will surely be more plentiful than in most weeks, but at least the Buccaneers won't yet be weary from a long, 18-week season in the early days of October. A win in New England would be a nice boost during a tough stretch of opponents, but the Bucs would have plenty of time to get over a tough loss if that is the outcome. The point is, it's probably best to play this game as early in the season as possible.
Here are a few more Pros and Cons – and a couple Question Marks as well – regarding the Buccaneers' 2021 schedule:
PRO: Thursday Night in Week One.
The Kickoff Game on September 9 blunts the more difficult aspects of playing a Thursday night game. Those contests require a very quick turnaround and little time to recover from a Sunday game in the previous week, but that's not an issue in Week One. After their final preseason game is played several weeks earlier, the Buccaneers (and Cowboys) will be able to arrange their schedule leading up to the Kickoff Game however they want. A normal week could easily be approximated.
CON: Thursday Night in Week Six.
No such luck here. Not only will the Bucs be playing just four days after a Week Five contest with the Dolphins, but they'll be headed out on the road to take on the Eagles in Week Six. The travel involved further shortens the time available to prepare. It's a challenge that every team playing a Thursday night road game faces, but it doesn't make it any more comfortable.
QUESTION MARK: Will the Bucs Be Better in Prime Time?
One of the most surprising developments of the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl run was that, before the playoffs, the team struggled in evening games. That was an issue since the arrival of Brady meant the Bucs were originally allotted the maximum five prime-time games, though a Sunday night affair in Las Vegas was eventually switched to late afternoon. The Bucs went 1-3 in prime time last year during the regular season, including a narrow Monday night win at the New York Giants and the team's worst contests of the year, a 38-3 Sunday night drubbing at the hands of the Saints.
PRO: The Final Stretch.
Tampa Bay's last three games are at Carolina, at the New York Jets and a Panthers rematch at home. It is far too early to know which teams will be prime playoff contenders in December, but the Jets and Panthers combined to win just seven games last year. Both are also opening the 2021 season with a young and largely unproven quarterback, with the Jets trading Sam Darnold to Carolina before drafting BYU's Zach Wilson second overall. If neither quarterback thrives right away in their new NFL homes, the Jets and Panthers could be struggling to remain in playoff contention late in the season. Conversely, if Darnold and the Panthers do succeed and rebound in 2021 and are NFC South contenders at least the Buccaneers will have a chance to control its own fate in the division title race at the end.
View pictures of the Buccaneers' 2021 Home and Away Opponents!
CON: The Defenses of Games 7-9.
The Buccaneers play the Chicago Bears at home in Week Seven, go to New Orleans in Week Eight and, after a bye week, head out again for Washington in Week 10. Brady and the Buccaneers finished the 2020 season on an incredible tear and could be ready to hit the ground running to start the 2021 season. However, this stretch could test even the best NFL offense. The Bears arguably had the best defensive performance against the Buccaneers last year other than the Saints in that Sunday night drubbing. Meanwhile, Washington finished second in the NFL in total defense to the Rams last year behind a ferocious defensive front and might be even better in 2021 after adding linebacker Jamin Davis with the 19th-overall pick.
QUESTION MARK: The First Four Games.
Just how hard is this opening stretch of games for Tampa Bay? On one hand, the four games include only one playoff team from last year, no reigning division winners and clubs with a combined 27-37 record in 2020. On the other hand, it would not be a surprise to see any or all four of those teams emerge as prime playoff contenders in 2021. The Cowboys get Dak Prescott back and could have one of the most explosive offenses in the entire NFL. The Dallas defense remains a question mark, however. The Falcons chose not to rebuild but rather to strengthen the team around Matt Ryan, and he now has stud tight end Kyle Pitts to target along with Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones. The Rams had the NFL's best defense in 2020 and have now swapped out Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. Is that enough of an upgrade to make them one of the NFC's most dangerous teams? And the Patriots signed a truckload of free agents in order to try to make their first losing season in two decades be their last one in a while. However, whether it's Cam Newton or Mac Jones, the quarterback situation is an unknown.
PRO: Sunday Night Proving Grounds.
As noted, the Bucs' prime-time games mostly didn't go well in 2020, particularly on Sunday night against the Saints. But the team surely wants – and will get – a chance to avenge that particular loss and prove it's difficulties under the lights last season were a fluke. Not only do the Bucs have two Sunday night games scheduled for 2021 but they come against the Patriots, which will be the brightest of spotlights, and the Saints, which is a direct opportunity for payback.
CON: Late Nights.
Of course, while the Bucs do want and deserve the spotlight of later games after winning the Super Bowl, players and coaches also crave routine. Present most NFL head coaches with a schedule of 17 straight 1:00 p.m. Sunday games and you'll make a lot of peole happy. The flip side of the exposure coin is that there is little repetition to the Bucs' routine through the first half of the season. The Buccaneers play only one 1:00 p.m. game during the eight games before the bye and are on the road for two 8:20 kickoffs and one 4:25 game in that span.
QUESTION MARK: More or Less Prime Time?
There's a possibility the Buccaneers don't play five prime time games during the 2021 regular season. Sunday night games can be flexed in Weeks 5-17, which wouldn't affect Tampa Bay's Week Four game at New England but could conceivably alter the team's schedule in Week 15, when they are set to play the Saints on Sunday night. In addition, the bucs final three games and five of their last seven are currently scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Sundays. Depending upon how well the team and its opponent are playing in any of those weeks, the Bucs could find themselves in another prime-time contest.
PRO: Home Bodies in December and January.
Once the calendar flips to December, the Buccaneers won't have much difficult travel remaining. Three of their final six games are at home and two of the other three are relatively short and familiar jumps to Charlotte and Atlanta. Only the Week 17 game at the New York Jets is a bit of a long haul.
CON: Consecutive Long Trips Early.
The Buccaneers' two longest road trips of 2021 in air miles are to Los Angeles to play the Rams and to Foxboro (possibly flying into Providence) to play the Patriots. And they come back-to-back in Weeks Three and Four. In addition, after one home game against the Dolphins the Bucs have to take off again to Philadelphia on a short week for a Thurdsay night game in Week Six. It's the toughest stretch of travel for the Bucs in 2021.
QUESTION MARK: Will the Week Nine Bye Ease Travel Fatigue?
Those three trips listed above are followed by a home game against Chicago and then road contests at New Orleans and Washington. That's five road trips in a seven-game stretch. However, the New Orleans and Washington games are split up by the bye week, which could make all this time on the road not seem quite as daunting.
PRO: Some Nice Fall Weather.
With road games at Foxboro, Philly and Landover all falling between October 3 and November 14, the Buccaneers will probably enjoy some very moderate weather on the road. Even if things have started to turn less pleasant in Indianapolis on November 28 or Atlanta on December 5, those games will be played in domes.
CON: The Meadowlands in January.
That said, a Week 17 trip to East Rutherford, New Jersey might not be so pleasant. When the Jets played at home against the Browns in Week 16 last year, the temperature at the 1:00 p.m. kickoff was 37 degrees. This is definitely a game you don't want to see flexed in the evening.
QUESTION MARK: What about the Tampa heat?
The Buccaneers only play three afternoon home games before December and two of those are starts after 4:00 p.m. Late-afternoon games in Tampa can still be very sticky but at least temperatures should gradually fall during those contests rather than rise. Tampa Bay is actually only scheduled for two 1:00 p.m. home kickoffs all season, against Miami on October 10 and against Carolina on January 9.