The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have known who all of their 2020 regular-season opponents would be since the end of the 2019 campaign, and they've known their schedule will include the defending Super Bowl Champions since February. What they didn't know at that time – and still don't – is when each of those games would be played. They also couldn't have foreseen with any confidence that one particular roster move would make all of those games exponentially more interesting to a national audience.
Call it the Tom Brady Effect.
The NFL is expected to drop its schedule for the 2020 regular season as early as this week. With the obvious caveat that everything in the sports landscape remains fluid and uncertain right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Buccaneers will soon learn when and where their upcoming season will start, and when their new quarterback will make his debut in pewter and red. After 20 unparalleled seasons with the New England Patriots, Brady will make his first regular-season start for Tampa Bay against…who?
View pictures of the Buccaneers' 2020 draft picks.
If the Patriots were on Tampa Bay's 2020 schedule, then this article would have been titled, "One Potential Week One Foe." The Buccaneers will not face New England this season (in the regular season, at least), but they have plenty of matchups that will surely draw national interest.
That obviously starts with Patrick Mahomes and the reigning champs from Kansas City. Brady vs. Mahomes, the last two Super Bowl-winning passers, the only six-time champion against the best young passer to come along in many years. It sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, yes, I think it is. I'm going to take four cracks at predicting who will be on the top of the list when the Buccaneers schedule is released (hopefully this week), and Kansas City isn't going to be one of them. Since they are last year's Super Bowl victor, the Chiefs will almost surely get the Week One Thursday night spotlight. The NFL actually deviated from that formula last year in order to celebrate its 100th season by pitting two original teams, Chicago and Green Bay, in that first game of the season. Brady and the defending Patriots still got the Sunday Night Football showcase in Week One, at home against natural rival Pittsburgh.
Otherwise, though, it's nearly a lock. The last five season "Kickoff Games" have all featured the defending Super Bowl champion at home, including Brady's Patriots in 2017 and 205. In 2018, the defending-champion Eagles were at home against Atlanta, which had lost in the previous Super Bowl. The 2016 Kickoff Game was a Super Bowl rematch of Carolina and Denver. Other than last year's anomaly, the last Super Bowl champ not to be at home in the Kickoff Game was Baltimore in 2013. They were still featured at that game but it was at Denver, which was a juicy rematch of an incredible playoff shootout the previous season.
So if Kansas City is at home in Week One, they can't be in Tampa, where the Bucs and Chiefs are due to play. There are plenty of other attractive options on the Chiefs home slate for NFL schedule-makers, including Houston and New England. A Deshaun Watson-Patrick Mahomes pairing would be pretty tasty.
So I've made my argument for why it won't be the Chiefs. Now let's look at four teams I think could be on the Bucs' schedule in Week One. The Tom Brady Effect is going to be a common them.
1. Las Vegas (Away)
What better way to christen the new Allegiant Stadium in Sin City than to send Brady there to help pull a crowd from the casinos? Yes, it's quite possible this game isn't played in Las Vegas, if the stadium's construction is delayed too much by the current situation. Still, one of the possible temporary homes for the Raiders if they can't play in Vegas is apparently San Diego's SDCCU Stadium. Buccaneer fans remember that venue as Qualcomm Stadium, where their team defeated, yes, the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
And the coach of the Buccaneers that season? Jon Gruden, who was in his first year with the team after four at the helm in Oakland. Gruden is now back for a second stint with the Raiders, and this will be his first matchup against the team he guided to a championship and coached for seven years. That alone makes this game jump off the page, especially as it's a matchup of two colorful, offensive-minded coaches. In his second year as the Buccaneers Head Coach, Arians has a loaded roster and eyes on a return to the playoffs.
That's obviously the goal in Las Vegas, too, and both the Buccaneers and Raiders look like teams on the rise. Both improved last year to 7-9 and both seemed to have addressed their most significant needs in the recent 2020 draft. The Buccaneers nabbed a starting right tackle and several more weapons for Tom Brady while the Raiders supercharged their previously-underwhelming receiving corps with Henry Ruggs, Lynn Bowden and Bryan Edwards.
This game would feature two of the top nine passing attacks from last year and a pair of quarterbacks who cracked 4,000 yards in Brady and Derek Carr. The Buccaneers can easily match Oakland's receiving corps with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and rookie Tyler Johnson. The Raiders have a 1,150-yard tight end in Darren Waller; the Buccaneers have, well, Rob Gronkowski.
It's not even uncommon for the Buccaneers to start their season with one of their four AFC opponents. They were scheduled to do that as recently as 2017 before Hurricane Irma pushed the Bucs-Dolphins contest to Week 11. Tampa Bay opened at home against Tennessee in 2015, at the New York Jets in 2013 and at home against Cleveland in 2010.
2. New Orleans (Home)
It might be tough for the schedule-makers to resist starting the 2020 season with a matchup of the NFL's two all-time leaders in passing yards and touchdown passes. Brady's 74,751 yards and 541 touchdown passes seem like fantasy numbers but the Saints' Drew Brees is just ahead at 77,416 and 547.
Moreover, the Buccaneers needed Brady to go after Brees and the Saints, who have put a stranglehold on the NFC South Division title the past three years. The Bucs are in win-now mode with their additions of Brady and Gronkowski and their aggressive re-signings of several key defensive players. If Tampa Bay wants to break it's 12-year playoff drought, it will have to get past the Saints, so a Week One examination of where those two teams stand would be very attractive.
Once again, this would feature two of the NFL's most explosive offenses. The Buccaneers and Saints each scored exactly 458 points last year to tie for the third-most in the NFL. The Saints have since added Emmanuel Sanders as a needed wide receiver complement to Michael Thomas, without losing any offensive pieces of real significance. The Buccaneers have added…well, you know.
The Saints' offense was much better at preventing scoring last year than were the Buccaneers (341 points allowed to 449 for the Bucs), which of course is why they finished six games better than Tampa Bay. But the Bucs' defense showed marked improvement in the season's second half and has since added playmaking safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. while somehow keeping their entire disruptive front seven intact.
Yes, these two teams met in the season opener just two years ago, but it proved to be a wildly entertaining game that just about any fan would like to see duplicated. That 48-40 Bucs win, in fact, was the highest-scoring Week One game in NFL history. That one was in the Superdome, though, so I'll predict this one is in Tampa, which would allow Brady to make his Buccaneers debut in front of a home crowd, if in fact there are fans in the stands this fall. One other trend of which to take note: Since 2011, the NFL schedule-makers have alternated year by year between starting the Bucs with a non-division opponent and a division opponent. Last year, Game One was against the NFC West's San Francisco, so an NFC South foe this season would continue the pattern.
3. Green Bay (Home)
I told you there would be a theme here, and this is yet another pairing of two of the NFL's best quarterbacks over the last dozen years or so. Brady and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers combined to win four of the 10 NFL MVP awards in the last decade, and they are considered two of the most intense competitors in the league.
Brady and Rodgers have only faced each other two times since the latter took over from Brett Favre as Green Bay's starter, and they've each one once. The first was a 26-21 Green Bay victory at Lambeau Field in 2014. The most recent one, in 2018, was at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots won, 31-17. Neither quarterback threw an interception in either of those games and both have excellent combined stat lines. Brady completed 44 of 70 passes for 539 yards, three touchdowns and a 100.8 passer rating. Rodgers hit on 48 of 81 passes for 627 yards, four touchdowns and a 100.2 rating.
That seems like a tie that needs breaking before these two MVPs hang up the cleats, and there may not be too many more opportunities. Brady and Rodgers are on a collision course in 2020, why not start the season with that hard-to-beat matchup?
4. Los Angeles Rams (Home)
I've tried my hand at these predictions each of the last three years, most successfully when I included Miami and Chicago among my four choices in 2017. Miami was originally the choice and then the Bears became the Bucs' actual opening opponent after Irma. Generally, I try to pick two games each from the team's home and road slates. This year, however, I'm purposely choosing three home games under the theory that the NFL will try to let Brady make his Buccaneer debut in front of a home crowd.
This game would be a Super Bowl rematch of sorts, which makes it an interesting place to start the season and Brady's run in Tampa. The Rams and Patriots met at the end of the 2018 season in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, with Brady's team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after a 13-3 win over Jared Goff and L.A. Many expected another offensive shootout like the one from the previous year in which the Eagles upended the Patriots in a rollicking score-fest, but this one defied expectations. Brady and company did roll up 406 yards but neither team scored a touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter.
It would be a surprise if that happened again in Tampa. I've covered the Buccaneers' offensive prowess several times above, but the Rams were also quite effective on offense last year, ranking fourth in passing yards and seventh in total yards. Goff saw his passer rating dip a bit to 85.6 after two straight years in triple digits, but he still threw for 4,638 yards and 22 touchdowns. That offense has since replaced Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks with rookies Cam Akers and Van Jefferson and is otherwise unchained so it still has the pieces to be explosive. The last time the Bucs and Rams met, a year ago in Los Angeles, it was the highest-scoring game in Tampa Bay's franchise history, a 55-40 Bucs victory.
This game would also pit former teammates and interior-line dominators Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh against each other. The Buccaneers have perhaps the NFL's best starting receiver duo in Evans and Godwin but the Rams have added star cornerback Jalen Ramsey since the last time the two teams met.
Brady is new to the Bucs-Rams rivalry, but it has quite a few high points. In addition to last year's 95-point affair, the two teams also met late in the 2000 season for perhaps the best non-playoff game in Bucs history. That 38-35 shootout featured the likes of Kurt Warner, Warrick Dunn and Marshall Faulk but the two current squads are just as star-studded. The Rams also beat the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game in both 1979 and 1999.