Beginning just a few days after his team's win in Super Bowl LV last February, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians has told anyone who would listen that there would be nothing easy about winning another championship in 2021. It only took one game to drive his point home.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers won that game, defeating the visiting Dallas Cowboys, 31-29, on Ryan Succop's 36-yard field goal with two seconds left. Wide receiver Chris Godwin, who had fumbled at the goal line five minutes earlier to allow Dallas to stay in the game and ultimately take a 29-28 lead, redeemed himself immensely with an acrobatic, spinning 24-yard catch to set up Succop's game-winner in the final seconds.
"The margin of error is thin in the NFL and, one or two plays, that's the way the game is," said quarterback Tom Brady, who threw for 379 yards and four touchdowns. "Fortunately we found a way to win. I'm really happy Ryan and the field goal team made that really clutch kick at the end, that was great to see. Special teams were just awesome tonight. As a team, we all know that we've got to get back to work and try to improve."
Godwin's fumble came after he fought through several tackles to try to make it to the end zone and put the Bucs up by two scores with five minutes to play. The Cowboys recovered the loose ball in the end zone and eventually drove 60 yards on 11 plays to set up Greg Zuerlein's go-ahead 48-yard field goal. Godwin's final catch finished a night in which he caught nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
"That's Chris," said Arians. "He's going to fight for every inch and sometimes [it backfires]. He got a good lick on him. But he's going to bounce right back and then make that big vert. You have to have chunks. In those situations, you've got to have chunks. Somebody's got to make a great play."
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who scored two touchdowns earlier in the contest, had two big catches for 26 yards on the final drive as well. A false start penalty earlier in the possession had stripped the Bucs of their last timeout and Brady had to get his team to the line and get off a quick incompletion as the clock ticked under 30 seconds. His 24-yard strike to Godwin came on the next play.
"Obviously, you never want to put your team in a bad position like that," said Godwin of his fumble. "I was just trying to make a play; I've got to hold onto the ball. I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to redeem myself and ultimately help us get a victory."
The victory marked the 40th time that Brady has led his team to a comeback victory in the fourth quarter, and it happened to come in his 300th career regular-season outing. Brady also recorded his 100th career 300-yard passing game on Thursday night, joining Drew Brees as the only players in NFL history to hit triple digits in that category. He gave the Buccaneers an early 7-0 lead with a five-yard touchdown pass to Godwin in the first quarter then made sure the home team was on top at halftime with a 47-yard scoring strike to Antonio Brown late in the second period.
Most importantly, he automatically instilled confidence in his teammates that they were going to prevail in the late clutch situation. The Buccaneers have now won nine games in a row (regular season and postseason) dating back to last year, the longest streak in franchise history.
"It's amazing," said Godwin. "You've got the ultimate confidence that, one, he's going to put you in the right play and, two, he's going to throw it to the right place. For us as receivers, we just run our routes to the best of our abilities and just give him a lane to throw it."
Brady's coaches felt confident on the sideline as well.
"There's no doubt we were going to win the game," said Arians. "It was just, who is going to make the plays? The guys up front did a hell of a job of protecting."
Succop's game-winning kick capped an excellent night for Tampa Bay's special teams, an encouraging start to 2021 after that phase of the game struggled some during the 2020 Super Bowl campaign. Succop made his only field goal and four extra points. Punter Bradley Pinion averaged 49.3 yards per punt with a stellar 45.8-yard net and dropped three of his kicks inside the Cowboys' 10-yard line. He also bombed all six of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Finally, return man Jaydon Mickens, elevated from the practice squad earlier in the day, returned two punts for 21 yards and three kickoffs for 92 yards. His 41-yard kickoff return after Dallas took a 16-14 lead in the second quarter set up a two-play touchdown drive ending in Brown's long score.
"Special teams were outstanding," said Arians. "I thought special teams won the game for us today. Mick did a hell of a job, the kicker did a great job. The offense and defense had spurts. It's stuff we can work on."
The Buccaneers won despite inflicting a number of wounds on themselves. Tampa Bay turned the ball over four times, including a Ronald Jones fumble and a deflected-ball interception on consecutive offensive plays in the second quarter that allowed Dallas to take their first lead fo the game. The Bucs also committed 11 penalties for 106 yards and bogged down offensively before the fourth quarter, converting just two of six third-down tries. Tampa Bay's defense also allowed 451 total yards of offense, which its offense countered with 431 of its own.
"We've got a lot a lot to learn," said Arians. "I'm obviously not pleased with the start of the game; love the finish. Our guys are winning. They're going to finish and we're going to win, but we can play better and not put ourselves in that situation."
Added Brady: "We won, it's great, but we know that it was far from perfect and we have to get back to work and clean a lot of stuff up."
Godwin wasn't the only Buccaneer to crack 100 receiving yards, as Brown finished with 121 yards on five grabs. Gronkowski got close on his way to those two touchdowns, catching eight passes for 90 yards. The Dallas passing attack was equally prolific, with quarterback Dak Prescott triumphantly returning from his 2020 ankle injury with 403 yards and three touchdown passes. Both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb topped 100 receiving yards, and the two combined for three touchdowns. Neither team showed too much interest in running the ball, with both Prescott and Brady topping 50 passes on the night.
The Bucs might like to have more offensive balance in the games to come. They certainly will hope to create more turnovers after getting just one, a Carlton Davis pick that set up a second-half touchdown, on Thursday. And they would prefer not to have to mount a last-minute drive to win on a last-second field goal. But in the end, a win is a win, and this one could lead to better performances in the weeks to come.
"I tell you what, we've got a lot of high-character guys and a lot of resiliency," said Godwin. "Adversity builds character and I think that really showed today. And I think this is going to be a game that helps us down the road."
The Buccaneers got the ball first to start the game but failed to move the chains after Brady's downfield shot to Godwin was just out of reach on third-and-three, following two Fournette runs.
Pinion blasted a 65-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Dallas two-yard line but Prescott immediately got the Cowboys out of trouble with a 28-yard strike to a wide-open Cooper down the left seam. After another first down, a well-set up screen to TE Dalton Schultz got 16 yards across midfield to the Bucs' 39. That's where the defense held, with Lavonte David's third-and-15 blitz forcing a quick sideline incompletion by Prescott.
Dallas elected to punt and the ball went out of bounds at the Bucs' six. That set up the first scoring drive of the 2021 NFL season, with Brady leading a no-huddle march that covered 94 yards in nine plays. Brady hit Brown twice for 44 yards to get the ball into scoring range and and also got a key first down with a pass between three defenders to Gronkowski for 19. The Bucs chose to run a play-action pass on first-and-goal from the five and Brady hit Godwin slanting towards the back middle of the end zone for the score.
The Cowboys responded immediately with a sharp 75-yard touchdown drive in which Prescott threw a string of in-rhythm short passes to get the ball into scoring range. That included a screen and a fake reverse to RB Tony Pollard and three quick strikes to WR Michael Gallup for 28 yards. The drive finished with Prescott's 22-yard touchdown pass to Lamb at the left front pylon.
The Bucs got across midfield on their next possession but ended up punting down to the Dallas five. The defense quickly forced a punt in return, but a penalty on Andrew Adams erased most of a long return by Mickens and put the Bucs right on the midfield stripe for their next drive. That was still good field position to ignite a go-ahead 50-yard touchdown drive. Brady found Godwin for gains of 19 and 17 yards to the Dallas 7 and, after a five-yard run up the gut by Fournette Brady rolled to his right and threw a dart into Gronkowski's chest for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Cowboys responded with a drive deep into Bucs territory, helped by two penalties on the Bucs' secondary, but came up empty when Zuerlein missed a 31-yard field goal wide to the left. The home team got the ball back at their own 21 with six-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. Unfortunately, Dallas got it right back when Jones fumbled on the first play of the ensuing drive and it was recovered by defensive end Randy Gregory at the Bucs' 27.
Prescott converted a third-and-eight with a deep slant over the middle to wideout Cedrick Wilson for 13 yards down to the Bucs' 12, and Prescott scrambled on the next play down to the five. Prescott picked up a low snap on the next play and was able to get off a touchdown pass on an out to Cooper to the left sideline with 4:20 left in the half. The Cowboys didn't quite tie up the game, though, as Zuerlein's extra point attempt hit the right upright.
Things went from bad to worse for the Bucs on the very next play from scrimmage, as a well-designed screen to Leonard Fournette turned into disaster when the ball bounced off his hands directly to Parsons for the interception at the Bucs' 21. The defense responded with a quick stop, with David breaking up Prescott's third-down pass, but that turnover still resulted in Zuerlein's 35-yard field goal and a 16-14 Dallas lead with 3:16 left in the half.
The Bucs only needed 38 seconds to take the lead right back. Mickens created great field position with a 41-yard kickoff return to the 43 and Brady got the ball across the field on the next snap with a 10-yard strike to Godwin. Brady looked for the jackpot on the next play, throwing deep down the right sideline to Brown, who beat the defense and easily hauled in a 47-yard touchdown.
Dallas had a chance to trim or reverse the Bucs lead after driving into Tampa Bay territory on the next possession, getting all the way Bucs' 21 in the final two minutes of the half. However, a key sack by Shaquil Barrett and a holding penalty on the next play left Dallas with no better option than a 60-yard field goal try by Zuerlein and it came up short.
However, Dallas got the ball to start the second half and once again mounted a long and methodical drive into Bucs territory. Prescott converted a pair of third downs with completions of 16 and 14 yards to Cooper and got a first-and-goal at the eight with another completion to Cooper. The Bucs kept the Cowboys out of the end zone, hoewever, thanks to a great open-field tackle by safety Andrew Adams on an option pitch from Prescott to Elliott. Adams was on the field after safety Mike Edwards was injured earlier in the drive. Zuerlein connected from 21 yards out to trim Tampa Bay's lead to 21-19.
The Buccaneers got their next scorign chance midway through the third quarter when Davis intercepted a pass that bounced off the hands of Lamb deep over the middle. That gave Tampa Bay possession at the Dallas 35 and Brady got them into the red zone immediately with a 20-yard back-shoulder sideline pass to Gronkowski. Brady faced a third-and-six at the 11 and an unblocked blitzer coming at him but calmly fired over the pressure to Gronkowski who caught the ball running upfield to the end zone for an easy score.
Once again, Dallas answered, this time with a 75-yard touchdown drive that ended in Prescott's impressive 21-yard cross-field touchdown pass to Cooper in the end zone. Before that play, Prescott continued to throw very quick, short passes, converting two third downs along the way. Zuerlein made the extra point to make it a two-point game once gain, 28-26 with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts the Buccaneers marched methodically down the field for what could have been a put-away touchdown. However, the drive ended disastrously just short of the end zone when Godwin, fighting for extra yards, lost control of the ball. It bounded into the end zone and was picked up by Jourdan Lewis, who returned it to the Dallas 10 with five mintues left.
Dallas drove from there into Buccaneers territory to set up Zuerlein for a 48-yard go-ahead field goal with 1:24 left in regulation. The big play was a 31-yard catch-and-run by Cooper that converted a third down from the Cowboys' side of the field. Fortunately, the Buccaneers had the ball last and were able to mount the final drive that led to Succop's game-winner.
View the best photos from the Bucs season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.