ESPN hailed the game as an 'Instant Classic,' and like most classics it featured some epic heroes.
The NFL's 2021 season opened with a bang on Thursday night as the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 31-29, at Raymond James Stadium in the annual Kickoff Game. The contest featured two lead changes in the last five minutes of the first half and two more in the last 90 seconds of regulation. The final swing came on Ryan Succop's 36-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.
Just like last year, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I will be nominating one player each for the Game Ball after each Buccaneer victory. If we wanted to bend the rules a bit, we could congratulate Succop and his mates in the third phase of the game by nominating 'Special Teams' as whole, especially after Head Coach Bruce Arians said that crew was the winning edge on Thursday night. Generally, though, we each pick one specific player, and while Succop was clutch there were plenty of other stars who put him in position for that final kick. As you might expect from a game that featured 832 yards of offense between the two teams, most of those standouts were on offense. Spoiler alert: You'll be choosing between two offensive players this week.
Tom Brady made his 300th regular-season start, the first quarterback in NFL history to do that, and recorded his 100th 300-yard passing game. He also fired off four touchdown passes, one each to Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown and two to his old pal Rob Gronkowski. The offense line did not allow a single sack, either. If you're looking for some defensive options, Carlton Davis had an interception that set up a touchdown and Shaquil Barrett got the Bucs' only sack of the night at a very opportune time.
There, the stage is set for this epic. Carmen and I will now make our nominations and at the bottom you can vote, either for one of our choices or for "other" if you think neither of us picked the right person. Since we aren't duplicating picks the order matters and this week Carmen gets to go first.
Carmen Vitali: TE Rob Gronkowski
Godwin is also an excellent choice here. If I had to go with a defensive player just to balance this out a bit – I'd go Vita Vea, likely. But there's no denying how directly impactful Gronkowski was with his two touchdown catches from ol' buddy, ol' pal Tom Brady. In fact, my good friend Chad Reuter from NFL.com asked me during the game if the phrase 'Tuddie Buddies' is a thing, to which I replied… well, it is now.
The connection between the two is just undeniable and seems nearly automatic at this point – even when things go array. In fact, Gronkowski elaborated on his second touchdown of the night, a two-yard shovel pass to Gronkowski right across the goal line, which Brady has said was not a designed play.
"Tom made a great call, I think I was actually on a route and then he checked me into blocking, then checked me into blocking and releasing," Gronkowski said. "I was like oh man, he just sees it all on the field, it's impressive. He's been playing for like 80 years, so he's seen every defense and every player."
This marks the second straight game dating back to last year's Super Bowl that Brady and Gronk have connected for two touchdowns in a game. But even more impressive were his other six receptions and when they came for the Buccaneers, especially on the final drive to help the offense get into field goal range.
With 1:24 left on the clock and the Bucs down one, they began what would be the game-winning drive at their own 25-yard line. After incurring a false start penalty and burning their last timeout to avoid a 10-second runoff, the Bucs had first and 15 at their own 32. It was a short pass to Gronkowski to get them into a manageable second and nine then another grab by Gronk to get the Bucs across midfield and nearly in field goal range. The 20-yard completion over the middle got the Bucs' to the Dallas 42. Gronk had the presence of mind and experience to get down immediately, allowing the Bucs to line up and run another play with the clock ticking down to 30 seconds left. It eventually set up a 24-yard completion to Godwin which then set up a manageable 31-yard field goal try to win the game.
Gronk caught all eight of the targets thrown his way for a total of 90 yards and those aforementioned two touchdowns. Whoever started Gronk in fantasy is probably pretty happy with themselves after last night.
Scott Smith: WR Chris Godwin
If we rewind to when there were 90 seconds left in the game last night, Godwin would be an unlikely choice for a game ball. Though he had put together a very productive night for three-and-a-half quarters and would end the game with nine catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, it was fumble near the goal line with five minutes left that nearly turned the tide for the Cowboys. Instead of going up by two scores with minutes left, the Buccaneers saw Dallas turn that takeaway into a go-ahead Greg Zuerlein field goal with 84 seconds to play.
Fortunately, the Bucs have that aforementioned Tom Brady guy, and Brady had unshaken confidence in Godwin. That led to a nice little redemptive arc for Godwin that turned his potential nightmare back into a performance worthy of a game ball.
Brady had 39 career fourth-quarter game-winning drives under his belt, so he was definitely not overwhelmed by the moment as the Bucs took over at their own 25, needing a field goal to win. Despite a false start erasing Tampa Bay's last timeout (used to avoid a more damaging 10-second runoff), Brady completed two passes to Giovani Bernard and two to fellow Game Ball nominee Gronkowski to get the ball across the field. After a 20-yard Gronk catch put the ball at the 42, the Bucs offense raced back into formation and Brady got off a quick pass deep in Antonio Brown's direction, an incompletion that stopped the clock with 24 seconds to play.
From that spot, the Bucs would have needed Succop to blast a 60-yard field goal. The veteran kicker is ultra-reliable but his career long field goal is 54 yards. The Bucs need some more yards, and Godwin got them.
Lined up in the middle of a trips alignment to Brady's left, Godwin started upfield at the snap, angled over to the sideline and then went vertical with slot corner Jourdan Lewis in tight coverage. Brady fired and Godwin saw it before Lewis, separating from the defender and spinning to make the sideline catch for a gain of 24. After three time-burning incompletions, Brady gave way to Succop for the game-winner.
So now Brady has 40 career fourth-quarter game-winning drives, and Godwin's clutch play is a big reason why.
"It's amazing," said Godwin of running a two-minute drill with the G.O.A.T. "You have the ultimate confidence that, one, he's going to get us in the right play and, two, that he's going to go to the right place with the ball. For us as receivers, we just run our routes to the best of our ability and give him a lane to throw it."
Godwin also scored the first points of the game (and the NFL season) with his five-yard touchdown pass on the Buccaneers' second possession of the game, and he was Brady's favorite target, getting thrown at 14 times. I mentioned Godwin's stats above, including his first 100-yard outing of the season. Those are nice. I like the story of redemption even better, though, and that's why Chris Godwin is my Week One Game Ball nominee.
Who deserves the Game Ball for Sunday's season-opening win over Dallas? Click here to vote!