Bruce Arians returns to an NFL sideline this season after one year in the broadcast booth. Prior to that, Arians had a very successful five-year stint as the Arizona Cardinals' head coach; now he takes over a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team eager to end a postseason drought. His motto: 'One Team, One Cause.' He's gunning for a Super Bowl ring this year.
If the Bucs are back on the path to the playoffs in 2019, will that path begin at Raymond James Stadium or a road venue? Who will be across the field on the other sideline when Arians coaches his first regular season for Tampa Bay? The 2019 NFL schedule will be released on Wednesday evening and one of the most intriguing questions for the Buccaneers and their fans is who will be the opponent in Week One.
Here at the AdventHealth Training Center we play a game every spring in the week of the schedule release, trying to predict the answer to that very question. The last two years, I've taken that game to Buccaneers.com, suggesting four possible foes for the Bucs' season opener. I fared quiet well in my first effort in 2017, with my four choices including both the originally-scheduled opener at Miami and the game that eventually became the opener, at home against Chicago, thanks to Hurricane Irma. Last year didn't go as well; I did have the Saints home game as one of my four picks but the correct answer proved to be at New Orleans. So, let's give it a go for a third time.
The Buccaneers already know all eight teams they will play at home and all eight they will visit on the road, and have since the moment the 2018 regular season came to an end. One of those 16 matchups jumps off the page: Tampa Bay will play host to Arians' former team, the Arizona Cardinals, this fall. If I'm predicting possible Week One matchups for the Buccaneers, that has to be at the top of the list, right?
View photos from week two of offseason training.
Well, actually, no. You'll find my four predictions below, but Arizona won't be among them. My reasoning is that the Cardinals may very well feature first-overall pick Kyler Murray at quarterback and his NFL debut, not a reunion with Arians, would be the biggest story surrounding that franchise. The Cardinals-Arians connection is still a good draw, but it will be evergreen for the entire 2019 season. The NFL could instead use that note as a reason to put Buccaneers-Cardinals on, say, a prime-time Thursday night game.
So now I'm down to 15 options. I'll start by eliminating as many of those options as I can before making my picks. As a reminder, the Buccaneers will have home games against Arizona, Atlanta, Carolina, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, the New York Giants and San Francisco. They will take trips to Atlanta, Carolina, Detroit, Jacksonville, Los Angeles (Rams), New Orleans, Seattle and Tennessee.
One game can definitely be eliminated: The Buccaneers already know their home game against Carolina will be played in London, and those games always fall closer to midseason. Subsequently, I'm going to knock off Tampa Bay's road game against the Panthers, too, because I don't think the league will put both of those intra-division games in the first half of the season. The NFL more commonly backloads division matchups, and since the NFC South was created in 2002 the Bucs and Panthers have never had both of their matchups fall within the first eight games of the season.
I'm also going to eliminate the trip to New Orleans just because that was the first game in 2018. Only one team in team history have the Buccaneers had the exact same Week One assignment (opponent and location) for two straight years, when they took a pair of trips to Chicago in 1984 and 1985. Next off my list is the L.A. Rams, who lost last year's Super Bowl to New England. The Super Bowl loser isn't guaranteed a Week One marquee matchup like the champion is, but the Rams are a very high-profile team right now and I think the league will want to make their opener very notable. The Bucs and Rams actually do have a pretty rich history against each other, but it's grown a bit cold and Los Angeles surely has better rivalries at the moment.
Finally, I'm going to eliminate the game at Tennessee because the last time the Bucs and Titans played, four years ago, it was a season opener. That's just too big of a coincidence for me. That leaves me with nine options. Here are my predictions:
1. Indianapolis (Home)
The other reason I was comfortable taking the Arizona reunion off my list is that the Buccaneers also have the Colts on their home schedule, and that's another great tie to Arians. He has two previous stints in Indianapolis and both were quite notable.
The first was 1998-2000, during which he was the quarterbacks coach at the perfect time: The arrival of Peyton Manning. The second was the 2012 season, which he began as the offensive coordinator but then took over as the interim head coach while Chuck Pagano was being treated for leukemia. Arians guided the Colts to a 9-3 record during his time in charge, helped the team rally to the playoffs and was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year for the first of two times in his career.
The game would also pit two talented young quarterbacks and two of the top six passing attacks in the NFL in 2018. The Buccaneers led the league with 320.3 passing yards per game while Indianapolis was sixth at 278.8. Tampa Bay's quarterback job was split between Jameis Winston and the since-departed Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Winston finished the season on a hot streak and there are high expectations for him under the tutelage of Arians, the "quarterback whisperer."
Meanwhile the Colts were buoyed by the triumphant return of Andrew Luck, who was a Pro Bowler in his first three seasons before injuries slowed him and the team down in 2015 and 2016. Luck then missed all of the 2017 campaign due to a serious shoulder injury, and there were concerns about how well he could perform in 2018. Luck, in fact, returned to Pro Bowl form and the Colts, after cratering to 4-12 in 2017, rebounded to 10-6 and made the playoffs.
The Colts are one of just four AFC teams on the Buccaneers' schedule, which would seem to reduce the odds of an interconference game in Week One (or any given week). However, matchups with AFC teams have become common for the Buccaneers in season openers of late. Counting the 2017 game against Miami that was eventually rescheduled, the Buccaneers have been slated to play an AFC opponent in Week One in four of the last eight years.
2. Atlanta (Home)
Intra-division games have also been fairly common for the Buccaneers as a season opener, which makes sense based simply on the fact that 37.5% of their games will come against one of those three teams. Tampa Bay has played each one of its NFC South foes in Week One within the last five years – at home against Carolina in 2014, at Atlanta in 2016 and at New Orleans in 2018. The Bucs also played host to Carolina in Week One in 2012. Yes, there appears to be an every-other season pattern there, which would make 2020 more likely than 2019 for an Atlanta matchup, but I can't eliminate all the NFC South teams from consideration over what is likely a coincidence.
Of course, I've already eliminated both Carolina games and the trip to New Orleans, which only leaves me with a home game against the Saints or either venue against Atlanta. I chose the home game against the Falcons because the Bucs went to Atlanta for their opener just three years ago.
Beyond that, there is another obvious coaching connection here. Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator in 2015 and then head coach the past three seasons, is now back in Atlanta as the offensive coordinator. He held the same post for the Falcons for 2012-14, where he first got to work with Matt Ryan. Koetter directed some very prolific passing attacks in Tampa and he certainly has the tools to do so in Atlanta with Ryan and Julio Jones. The idea of sending Koetter back to Tampa for the first game of his second stint with the Falcons could have been appealing to the schedule-makers.
The Falcons are also a noted rival for the Buccaneers, perhaps their most emotionally-charged one at the moment. And unlike the last two years, in which they were coming off two playoff seasons and one near-win in the Super Bowl, the Falcons in 2019 after following up a 7-9 campaign. The last time Atlanta was coming off a non-playoff season, they were matched up against the Buccaneers in Week One.
3. Detroit (Away)
Three years ago, the Lions and Buccaneers both finished with 9-7 records but the Lions got the last NFC playoff berth based on tiebreakers. Both seemed to be rising NFC contenders, but two years later, in 2018, they tallied six and five wins, respectively. The Lions brought in a new head coach in 2018 (Matt Patricia) and now the Buccaneers have a new man at the helm, too.
The NFL could see the Buccaneers and Lions as two teams on similar trajectories, each with a chance to finally rise as playoff contenders in 2019, they might choose to pair them up in Week One. Again, it would be a game featuring two quarterbacks capable of putting up big numbers, both of them surrounded with a lot of receiving talent. Winston has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshad Perriman, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate to catch his passes while Matthew Stafford has Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay and newly-signed tight end Jesse James at his disposal.
There also remains a whiff of the old Black and Blue Division here. The Buccaneers shared the NFC Central with Detroit for 25 years and had some memorable matchups against the likes of Barry Sanders and Herman Moore. In fact, Perriman, new to the Buccaneers in 2019, could help even out the impact of the Perriman family in this all-time rivalry.
4. Jacksonville (Away)
My choices for a second road-game prediction, after I've eliminated the Rams, Titans, Panthers and Saints and already chosen the Lions, comes down to Jacksonville, Seattle and Atlanta. I picked the Falcons home game above so I don't want to double up on the same team, and I just have a hard time seeing a cross-country trip to the Pacific Northwest in Week One. In 43 previous seasons the Buccaneers have only played an opening game on the West Coast once, when they went to Seattle in 2007. In the last 10 years, only two East Coast teams have had to play a season opener against the Seahawks or one of the California clubs (Miami at Seattle in 2016 and Carolina at San Francisco in 2017).
The last time the Buccaneers had a road game scheduled against one of their in-state rivals, the NFL tried to put that contest in Week One. Again, that was the expected trip to Miami that got shunted to Week 11 by a hurricane. Here, the league gets a second chance, sending the Bucs up to play at Jacksonville, where they've only had three previous regular-season games. The last time these two Florida teams squared off, four years ago at Raymond James Stadium it was a wild 38-31 contest with four lead changes and a critical fumble-return touchdown by Jacquies Smith late in the game.
Two years later, in 2017, Jacksonville's defense coalesced into one of the best units in the game and led the Jaguars on a surprise run to the AFC Championship Game. Jacksonville couldn't repeat that outstanding defensive performance or its playoff chase last year, but that the Jaguars still have a very talented roster. A Jacksonville defense led by Jalen Ramsey, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Yannick Ngakoue would be a very compelling matchup for Bruce Arians' first offensive display.