This is the fifth year in which, with the schedule about to drop, I've attempted to predict who and where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be playing in Week One of the upcoming season. There's also a good chance this is the year I get back in the winner's circle.
My first effort remains my best one, unfortunately. In 2017 I listed four possible Week One candidates for the Buccaneers and essentially hit on two of them, which sounds impossible. See, one of my predictions was an away game at Miami, which was in fact what the schedule-makers selected. However, that game was eventually postponed by Hurricane Irma, making the Bucs' real opening opponent the Chicago Bears, at home. That was also one of my four predictions.
I had no such luck in each of the next three years. The closest I came was last year, when I had a home game against the Saints on my list and it ended up being a road game in New Orleans. So why am I confident I can get it right this year? Well, to be honest, there are a lot fewer variables to consider. In fact, there are so few obvious options that I'm only going to pick three games this year.
The reason for this, of course, is that the Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions. Since 2004, the NFL has began the season with a "Kickoff Game" on the Thursday evening of Week One. That game has almost always included the defending champs playing on their home field. The only two exceptions were in 2013, when the Baltimore Ravens had a conflict with an Orioles home game, and 2019, when the NFL kicked off with the Bears at the Packers to celebrate the league's 100th season. (The 2012 Kickoff Game was played on Wednesday night to avoid the Democratic National Convention, but it still featured the defending-champion Giants at home.)
So it's fair to assume a Week One home game for the Buccaneers, which reduces the options from 17 to eight. Furthermore, the league will almost certainly search for the juiciest matchup on Tampa Bay's schedule, something that might look like a potential playoff or Super Bowl preview. That further reduces the field of candidates.
For instance, last year's Kickoff Game sent the Houston Texans to Kansas City, which was a rematch of the previous year's AFC Divisional Round win for the Chiefs. Similarly, the first game of 2018, Atlanta at Philadelphia, was a rematch of the same two teams in the previous year's NFC Divisional Round. The most epic rematch came in Week One of the 2016 season, when the league was able to schedule a rematch of Super Bowl 50 between Carolina and Denver.
Since 2006, the defending champs have been matched up with a playoff team from the previous season every year except one. The exception was in 2012, when the New York Giants as reigning Super Bowl winners took on the Dallas Cowboys, who had missed the playoffs the following year. But we all know how much the NFL loves to put Cowboys-Giants in the spotlight.
So, yes, I'm strongly assuming the Bucs' Week One opponent will be a 2020 playoff team. A rematch would be ideal, but there's only one likely candidate, as Green Bay and Kansas City are not on Tampa Bay's 2021 schedule and the Bucs will play Washington on the road. There are three 2020 playoff teams on the Bucs' 2021 docket: Buffalo, New Orleans and Chicago. So you can see where I'm going with this.
Here are three possible Week One matchups for the Buccaneers in 2021, starting with what I consider the most likely choice:
1. Buffalo (at home)
To me, this is far and away the favorite, and it might be the next best thing to a Chiefs-Bucs matchup. Buffalo went from being a somewhat surprising playoff entrant in 2019 to clearly one of the NFL's best teams in 2020, and they advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City. They even had an early 9-0 lead in that game before Patrick Mahomes went supernova.
Another chapter in the Mahomes-Tom Brady supposed "passing-of-the-torch" continuum would have been ideal, but a meeting of Josh Allen and Brady is very appealing, as well. Like Mahomes, Allen is another young passer on the rise who should be battling for NFL G.O.A.T status in the (eventual) post-Brady era. Allen was one of three players to receive votes in the league MVP voting last year, with four to Mahomes' two. Aaron Rodgers won the award with 44 votes.
This matchup would pit two of the most entertaining teams from 2020. Buffalo and Tampa Bay ranked second and third, respectively, in points per game last year, both topping 30. The Bucs had the league's fourth-best points differential; Buffalo was fifth. Brady and the Bucs had the NFL's second-most potent passing attack, while Allen and the Bills were third, and Allen also ran for 421 yards and eight touchdowns.
Then there is the matter of Brady and the Bills. Brady left the AFC East after 20 years in 2020 but it only took two years for the Bucs to be matched up with that division again. Obvious, the six-time champion Patriots were a tough matchup for every other team in the East for the past two decades, but Brady was especially tough on the Bills. His all-time record as a starter against Buffalo is an incredible 32-3. That is the most wins by one quarterback against any one franchise in NFL history. It includes three games pitting Brady and Allen, all won by the elder statesmen of the division.
Allen has clearly taken his game to another level since the last time he shared the field with Brady. This matchup, both of the quarterbacks and of the teams, is just too good for the league to pass on.
2. New Orleans (at home)
Even with everything I wrote above, we can't dismiss the possibility of the NFL wanting the one playoff rematch available on the Bucs' home schedule.
I would have given this better odds had Drew Brees not retired in March. The very first game the NFL dialed up for the Buccaneers after they landed Brady was a meeting of the two most prolific passers in league history, in Week One last season. Perhaps the possibility of former Bucaneer Jameis Winston taking over for Brees as the Saints starter will add some flavor to this matchup in the schedule-makers' eyes.
Intra-divisional matchups haven't been too common in the Kickoff Game era, but of course it's not all that common for the Super Bowl champions to share a division with what was clearly one of the league's best teams that same year. Even without Brees, this is still likely to rank as one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries in 2021. The Buccaneers claimed the biggest prize in 2020 but they did not win the NFC South. That title went to New Orleans for the fourth straight year, mostly because the Saints won both matchups with the Buccaneers during the regular season. That included Tampa Bay's worst game of the year by a considerable margin, a 38-3 New Orleans win at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday Night Football. That game alone is worth another dose of revenge in addition to the Bucs' playoff win in the Superdome.
And while these two teams are loaded with offensive stars, from Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, they also could stage an impressive defensive battle. The Saints ranked fourth in the NFL's defensive rankings last year and the Bucs were not far behind, at sixth. New Orleans has owned the recent regular-season series with Tampa Bay in large part due to a turnover-happy defense, but the Buccaneers' own squad started producing takeaways in bunches during its eight-game winning streak that ended in the Super Bowl.
3. Chicago (at home)
Perhaps the NFL would like to open with a different sort of quarterback matchup with 43-year-old Tom Brady going up against 22-year-old Justin Fields, the player Chicago traded up to get with the 11th-overall pick in the draft. The obvious problem with that idea is that there is definitely no guarantee the rookie passer will be in the lineup in Week One. The Bears also signed veteran starter Andy Dalton in the offseason and still have Nick Foles on hand, as well.
Still, this is another matchup of 2020 playoff teams, not to mention a rematch of a prime-time win by the Bears over the Bucs in Chicago early last season. Other than New Orleans, Chicago was the only team to hold Brady and the Buccaneers below 20 points in a game last year. The Bears also drubbed the Buccaneers in Soldier Field in 2018, 48-10, and while Brady obviously wasn't around for that game, nor was the current coaching staff, it is still a relatively fresh memory in the minds of Buccaneer veterans.
Even if Fields is not playing by Week One, the Bears can make this a tantalizing matchup with the Super Bowl champs because of their potentially elite defense. That defense is led by Khalil Mack, perhaps the NFL's most feared pass-rusher, and also includes a budding young star linebacker in Roquan Smith.
While the Bears were a playoff team, they only finished 8-8 and made the postseason due to the added seventh spot in each conference. There's a good chance they're a better team in 2021, and thus an appealing partner in the reigning champs' Week One spotlight, but probably not quite as appealing as the Bills or Saints.