Aside from advanced scouting, NFL teams usually get just one week to prepare for their next opponent, and maybe a little less if they are playing on a Monday, Thursday or Saturday. There is one big exception to that: Week One.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently wrapping up Phase II of their offseason program and will soon be moving into Phase III. That final phase allows for more advanced practice drills but it is like the first two in that it's goal is laying the foundation for the more specific development of the playbook in training camp. Young receivers are learning where to line up, young cornerbacks are working on footwork, and so on.
The real competition for jobs will start in training camp, and so will the Buccaneers' extended preparation for that first opponent of the regular season, as Quarterbacks Coach Clyde Christensen pointed out on Tuesday.
"Once you get to training camp," said Christensen, "it's all about winning that opening day."
Thus, if there's anything that coaches want answered by the annual reveal of the full schedule for the upcoming season, it's which team is first on their list. And with one more day to wait on that massive information dump on Thursday night, I'm going to engage in another annual activity and try to guess who that Week One opponent will be (and where the game will be played, if it happens to be a division foe). As usual, I'll take three stabs at it, giving me a 17.7% chance of being correct simply by chance. I will be trying to apply a little logic and educated guesswork, though.
Here are the choices. Home: Rams, Bengals, Packers, Chiefs, Ravens, Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Seahawks*. Away: Cardinals, 49ers, Steelers, Browns, Cowboys, Panthers, Saints, Falcons.
First, we can summarily eliminate two of the 17 possibilities. You can see that I have the game against Seattle included among the home opponents but marked with an asterisk. That's because that matchup has already been announced as the Week 10 game in Munich, as Tampa Bay and Seattle will face off in the first NFL game ever played in German. This was announced last week. And unless the schedule makers break from long-standing tradition, it won't be the Rams, either. That's a juicy matchup, but as the defending Super Bowl champions, the Rams are a sure to get a home date for the Week One Kickoff Game on Thursday night. The Bucs' game against Los Angeles will be in Tampa.
Now I'm going to use some of my own logic to eliminate a couple other games from consideration. Bear in mind, my logic may end up being flawed, but I have to figure out some way to narrow down the choices. For instance, Bucs-Cowboys could be a whale of a game, but will the schedule makers actually give these two teams the exact same Week One opponent as last year? The last time that happened for the Bucs was 1984-85 (at Chicago both times). It's happened more recently for Dallas but that's because the NFL looooves to start the season with a prime-time game between the Cowboys and Giants. Also, I'm kind of hoping the Bucs get this year's Thanksgiving game in Dallas.
I'm also going to eliminate Green Bay and Kansas City. Again, these are absolutely marquee matchups centered around epic quarterback pairings and prime Super Bowl aspirants. Bucs-Chiefs is even a rematch of Super Bowl LV. My 'logic' here is that the NFL will consider those matchups too good to put in Week One, which will already have the Rams' Kickoff Game (rumored to be against the Bills) and probably high-profile matchup for the Super Bowl runners-up, Cincinnati (more on that in a moment).
Finally, I'm taking the road game at New Orleans off the board. The Buccaneers already started the recent 2018 and 2020 seasons with a game at the Superdome and doing so again for the third time in five years just seems too unimaginative for the schedule makers. Hope I'm not giving them too much credit.
So here are my three Week One guesses, in no particular order (though I'm kind of fond of the first one):
1. San Francisco (on the road)
I feel like this is the right level of celebrated matchup. It would be up on that marquee, but not necessarily the headliner for the week. It's easy to forget that San Francisco played in the NFC Championship Game last year after finishing the season on a very hot streak. They might be operating behind a new quarterback if the 49ers move on from Jimmy Garoppolo and turn to 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance, but that only heightens the intrigue of this game. The league has gotten a lot of mileage in recent years on pointing out the enormous age difference between Brady and some fresh-faced foe QB on the other sideline.
The Buccaneers have played two of their last three Week One games at home so they're due for a season-opening road trip. Conversely, the 49ers have been sent on the road to start three of their last four seasons, including a long trip to Tampa in Week One of 2019. Turnabout seems like fair play.
Even if the 49ers are going through an adjustment phase with a new quarterback early in 2022, they'll have a top-notch defense to prop them up. San Francisco finished third in last year's regular-season defensive rankings and didn't allow any of their last seven opponents to top 24 points. In the playoffs, the 49ers allowed just 15.7 points per game despite facing the high-powered offenses of the Cowboys, Packers and Rams, all on the road. They've since added cornerback Charvarius Ward and defensive tackle D.J. Jones on big free agency deals and used their first draft pick on promising edge Drake Jackson. The thought of matching Brady and the Buccaneers' number-one passing offense against that defense has to be attractive to the schedule-makers.
On the flip side, a Bucs-49ers matchup would pit the team with the sixth-most rushing yards over the past three seasons (San Francisco) against the league's best run defense in that span (Tampa Bay). Both the Buccaneers and Rams were bounced from last year's playoffs by three-point, last-minute decisions. Matching these two teams up in Week One might give an early indication as to which one will emerge as the primary contender to the Rams' throne.
2. Cincinnati (at home)
The Bengals don't get any Week One home guarantees as the losers of last year's Super Bowl, but it's likely the league will want to give them some sort of spotlight with a premier matchup. The last four Super Bowl runners-up all got Week One home games, but it's an almost even split (6-4) between home and road over the last 10 years.
If the Rams-Bills reports for the Kickoff Game are accurate, I like the symmetry of pitting the Bengals and the Bucs in the same week. Each of the two teams from the Super Bowl will start with what is considered a top championship contender from the opposite conference.
This one has the great quarterback storyline, too. Tom Brady is obviously the G.O.A.T. and may not ever lose that title. But Joe Burrow is one of a handful of very young passers who will be chasing Brady's accomplishments over the next couple decades. Like Brady did in New England back in the early days of the millennium, completing transforming an organization that had only limited success before his arrival, Burrow now looks capable of doing in Cincinnati.
The Bengals were the most surprising team of the 2022 season, and their inspirational and surprising run to the brink of a title was perhaps the league's best story after the Matthew Stafford-Rams pairing. This is a franchise that hasn't seen much of the spotlight for a long time, but I think the NFL is going to be giving them a whole lot of attention in 2022, and probably for as long as Burrow is confidently leading them to new heights.
And finally, don't forget the Alex Cappa revenge factor. Cappa left the Buccaneers this offseason for a well-deserved big contract in free agency as the Bengals worked overtime to fix their most obvious weakness, a porous offensive line. Cappa will be seeking to prove that the Bucs should have broken the bank to keep him around while Shaq Mason will be trying to demonstrate that Tampa Bay got even better at the right guard position.
Okay, I'm totally kidding about that last one, but it would be fun if Cappa's first real game for his new team was back in his old home stadium.
3. Baltimore (at home)
The Buccaneers have eight different teams from the 2021 playoffs on their 2022 schedule, which creates the possibility of a lot of different spotlight games for the schedule makers to play with. Baltimore is not one of those teams…but it sure feels like one.
The Ravens simply couldn't overcome a crush of injuries in the second half of the season, as they fell from 8-3 and a seeming walk to the postseason to 8-9 with six straight defeats. Five of those six losses came by a margin of three or fewer points, including an incredible three one-point decisions. Five of those six losses were also at the hands of teams that did make the playoffs. With better health fortune in 2022, it's easy to consider Baltimore a prime postseason contender again, as they had been the three previous seasons.
Last year is instructive. When I made my three Week One guesses prior to the 2021 schedule drop, I chose three teams from the previous season's playoff field and thus failed to include the Cowboys. Dallas had gone just 6-10 the year before but a large part of that was due to an early-season injury that sidelined stud quarterback Dak Prescott. (And a woefully bad defense, but that's another story.) The schedule makers saw a marquee team with Prescott back under center and rightfully considered Dallas a contender.
I won't make that mistake again. Lamar Jackson is due for a season of better health fortune after a frustrating campaign in which he was sidelined for five games. And with Jackson on the field, the Ravens are not only a contender but a very entertaining one at that. This would be yet another attractive matchup of quarterbacks, but in this case two players with hilariously different styles. Jackson is one of the best running quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen while Brady tends to make jokes at the postgame podium anytime circumstances dictate that he take off on a run of more than a few yards. Brady's command of the Bucs' offense is such that he can put up league-leading passing numbers without having to move around much.
The Ravens also loaded up in the draft with a class that has been universally praised and should be poised to make an impact right away. Safety Kyle Hamilton was a top-five talent at a position of need, center Tyler Linderbaum fell into their laps at number 25 and defensive tackle Travis Jones should help right away on the defensive front.
Baltimore has a lot going for it as a team that deserves to be put under one of the brighter spotlights on opening weekend. That just might happen in Tampa.