The 2020 NFL season ended – triumphantly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – at Raymond James Stadium. The 2021 NFL season will kick off in the same place.
The Buccaneers, winners of Super Bowl LV in February, will begin their title defense at home and in the prime-time spotlight, taking on the Dallas Cowboys in the annual "Kickoff Game" on the evening of Thursday, September 9. The game will be broadcast nationally by NBC, with kickoff scheduled for 8:20 p.m. ET. The NFL first christened an opening-week Kickoff Game in 2004 and, with only a few exceptions, it has generally featured the defending Super Bowl champions playing at home.
It is also commonly a marquee matchup between two teams widely expected to be strong playoff contenders, and Tampa Bay-Dallas certainly fits the bill. While the Cowboys finished 6-10 last season they lost star quarterback to a season-ending injury in Week Five and had finished .500 or better in eight of the previous nine seasons. Meanwhile, after winning Super Bowl LV, the Buccaneers worked free agency aggressively to keep virtually the entire championship roster intact for another title run in 2021.
In addition to the Kickoff Game, the rest of the 2021 Week One schedule was revealed by the various broadcast networks on the Today Show on Wednesday morning. The NFL will release its entire 2021 regular-season schedule during a three-hour special on NFL Network on Wednesday evening, beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET. The Buccaneers will reveal their own 17-game schedule 15 minutes prior to the start of the show.
Prescott suffered an ugly ankle fracture against the New York Giants early last October but is expected to be fully recovered by the start of the Cowboys' training camp. That clears the way for a celebrated matchup of quarterbacks to kick off the season, with the Cowboys' young star squaring off against Super Bowl LV MVP Tom Brady. Before his injury, Prescott was off to perhaps the best start of his career, completing 68.0% of his passes and racking up 1,856 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions in less than five outings. His 1,690 passing yards through after four weeks set a record for the most every by a quarterback through the first four games of a season.
Brady, of course, is the most decorated quarterback in NFL history and the owner of seven Super Bowl rings after leading the Bucs to their second championship in his first year with the team. He is the NFL's all-time leader in touchdown passes, a figure he spiked with a team-record 40 TDs in 2020, followed by 10 more in the postseason for an even 50 on the year.
Both teams are also loaded with standout skill-position players around their elite quarterbacks. Brady distributes the ball to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette. Prescott shares the backfield with Ezekiel Elliott and has a very productive trio of wideouts in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup.
Tampa Bay's defense will also be showcased after dominating in the Super Bowl and finishing the regular season ranked sixth in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed. The defensive front that took over the final game of last season returns standout pass-rushers Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh and now adds first-round pick Joe Tryon to the mix. The young and ascending secondary also remains intact after a strong finish to 2020 and the middle of the defense is patrolled by perhaps the NFL's top inside linebacker duo, Lavonte David and Devin White.
The Cowboys did not have the same results on defense in 2020, giving up the fifth-most points in the league, but the team devoted most of its draft to that side of the ball, beginning with playmaking linebacker Micah Parsons with the 12th-overall pick. Linebacker Jaylon Smith was second in the NFL last year with 154 tackles and 2020 second-round pick Trevon Diggs had a fine rookie season with three interceptions and 14 passes defensed.
Prior to the invention of the Kickoff Game, the NFL had a looser tradition of the defending champions starting with a home Monday Night Football game in Week One. The last time the Bucs were champs, after winning Super Bowl XXXVII to cap the 2002 season, they became an exception to that tradition. Tampa Bay was sent to Philadelphia in Week One of the 2003 campaign in order to start with a Monday night rematch of the 2002 NFC Championship and to put the spotlight on the Eagles' new Lincoln Financial Field. This time around, the Buccaneers were not denied their home opener.
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