The 2023 NFL Draft is in the rear view mirror, and I am experiencing mock draft withdrawal. Sure, I could seek out the way-too-early 2024 mock drafts that I know are out there, but my limited knowledge on next year's potential top prospects would make that an unsatisfying endeavor. I'll just have to wait until next February to start devouring – and occasionally producing – another mock draft.
Ah, but when one NFL tentpole event passes there is usually another one on the horizon, and in this case we didn't have to wait long. On Thursday, the league will drop its entire 2023 schedule, all 272 regular season games arranged in weeks and locations and dotted with primetime showcase affairs. Yes, the schedule release is now an entire three-hour evening television show. Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' creative minds will celebrate the event with their annual "schedule release video" with whatever clever theme they dreamed up this year.
And, yes, like the draft and it's accompanying flock of mocks, the schedule release gives us an opportunity to make predictions.
Specifically, I am once again going to take three cracks at guessing who the Buccaneers' opponent will be in Week One (and where the game will be played, if it happens to be a division foe). I have a 17.7% chance of getting it right on sheer luck, but I'm going to try to apply some logic to narrowing down the choices. Of course, that very exercise got me in trouble last year, when I ruled out Dallas on the notion that the league wouldn't pit the Buccaneers and Cowboys against each other in Week One for a second straight year. Well, they did. And once again in prime time, to boot.
First off, here are the choices.
Home: Bears, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars, Lions, Panthers, Saints, Titans
Away: 49ers, Bills, Colts, Falcons, Packers, Panthers, Saints, Texans, Vikings
Last year, I actually had a 20% chance of getting it right on sure luck because there were two games I could absolutely eliminate. One was the previously-announced contest against Seattle in Germany. The other was the Rams' visit to Tampa, since the Rams were the defending Super Bowl champs and thus, by tradition, would get the Thursday night Kickoff game at home.
No such luck this year, but I'm still going to eliminate a handful of options before I make my picks. First, I'm taking Philadelphia, San Francisco and Buffalo off the board because there are specific matchups on their schedules that look like obvious choices for Week One primetime games. San Francisco will be playing a game in Philadelphia, which would be the exact matchup of last year's NFC Championship Game. Seems too good to pass up. Likewise, the Bills will be playing at Kansas City at some point…how about that one for the Thursday night Kickoff Game?
I'm also taking the Panthers (that's two of the 17 games) and Texans off my board. Those two clubs are scheduled to meet this season and I'm thinking the league will pair them up right off the bat. Remember when the Buccaneers drafted Jameis Winston first-overall in 2015 and the Titans took Marcus Mariota with the second pick? Those two teams were then matched up in Week One. Well, Carolina and Houston just drafted Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud with the first two picks in the 2023 draft, so I'm guessing the schedule-makers give them the same treatment. Also, I've seen the notion that this could be a 'Baker Mayfield Revenge Game' and that seems a little too rich for my blood. That's really not significant enough to drive a Week One matchup, and there's a second Bucs-Panthers game later in the season anyway.
Finally, the Bucs are going back to staging a Throwback Game this year – to everyone's delight – and this may be a bit of a stretch but perhaps they would like to do it against one of the two visiting teams from the division the Bucs were in during their Bucco Bruce era. Chicago and Detroit are both on the Bucs' home slate this year. I highly doubt that the Bucs would schedule their Throwback Game for Week One; it has traditionally been held later in the season. That 'logic,' such as it is, would really only eliminate one of those two teams, but I'm going to take them both off the board anyway.
So that pares my list down to nine choices, and from that I'm picking the following three, in no particular order:
1. Atlanta (home)
Even though I didn't get this right either of the last two years, it still seemed easier in 2021 and 2022 because the Bucs were coming off a Super Bowl victory and then a division title and good postseason showing. Oh, and they still had a certain Mr. Brady, who is a built-in audience draw. For that reason, I tended to lean towards marquee matchups that the league would want to put front and center in Week One.
This year, the Bucs are once again a defending NFC South champs but their final record after the playoffs last year was 8-10 and that Brady fella has since retired. The oversized attention that was aimed at Brady the last few seasons will probably now turn to Aaron Rodgers, and the New York Jets.
So I looked at the patterns before 2021 and it's worth noting that in five of the previous nine seasons the Buccaneers kicked things off against a division opponent. It was Carolina in 2012 and 2014, Atlanta in 2016 and New Orleans in 2018 and 2020. I've already ruled out the Panthers and another Bucs-Saints game in Week One seems redundant. That leaves the Falcons, and since the last three Week One intradivision matchups were on the road, I'm having the Bucs at home against their rivals from Georgia.
Not that this game is devoid of interesting storylines. Because Tampa Bay won the division with a sub-.500 record and just a one-game lead over all three of the other teams, the NFC South is widely viewed as being up for grabs in 2023. The Bucs have taken the last two crowns after a four-year run by the Saints, but the Falcons are a trendy pick to ascend to the top in 2023.
Atlanta may still have some uncertainty at quarterback with second-year man Desmond Ridder, but they have surrounded him with some high-powered weapons. Over the last three years, they have spent top-10 draft picks at three different offensive skill positions – tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Drake London and, just a couple weeks ago, running back Bijan Robinson.
The Falcons have also tried to shore up what has been a shaky defense, signing safety Jessie Bates, cornerback Mike Hughes and pass-rushers Calais Campbell, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree. Tampa Bay has dominated this head-to-head series for the last three years, only losing with a cast of reserves in a meaningless game in Week 18 last year, but this series looks like it could go back to being the bitter and hard-fought rivalry it has been for most of its existence.
2. Indianapolis (away)
There is a bit of a quarterback-related hook here, if you look closely enough. Depending upon how the Bucs' quarterback competition goes and how quickly the Colts throw their first-round rookie into the fire, this could be a battle between two recent standout passers at the University of Florida.
I'm not saying that a Kyle Trask-Anthony Richardson showcase was the first thing on the schedule-makers' minds, but it potentially makes for an interesting storyline. The Buccaneers haven't been scheduled to play an AFC team on opening weekend since 2017, and they haven't actually played an interconference opener since 2015. After the aforementioned Winston-Mariota matchup in 2015, the Bucs were scheduled to kick off in Miami in 2017 but that game was eventually postponed due to Hurricane Irma.
Though it's been a while, starting a season with an interconference game has not been unusual for the Buccaneers. They did so four times in an eight-year span from 2010 to 2017, and now there's one more interconference game for each team per season with the "17th game" added in 2021. However, the Bucs and Colts have never met in Week One so, hey, try something new.
Also, the NFL is clearly not afraid to highlight AFC-NFC tilts in Week One. Last year, it had six of them queued up, including Bills-Rams, Chiefs-Cardinals and Broncos-Seahawks. That was 37.5% of the schedule that week, even though interconference games only make up 29.4% of the total.
The Buccaneers and Colts could be seen as interesting matchup of two teams making big transitions. Obviously, the Bucs are moving on from Brady trying to find out if they have a long-term answer at quarterback in either Trask or veteran addition Baker Mayfield. As for the Colts, after trying to contend with a string of veterans in the post Andrew-Luck era, they have finally taken their first big draft swing at the position since they landed Luck first overall in 2012. Richardson was snagged with the fourth-overall pick and could develop into one of the league's most exciting players if his physical gifts translate into success in the NFL.
3. Green Bay (away)
This game has an even clearer storyline at the quarterback position, as both franchises are moving on from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Brady retired, Rodgers was traded to the Jets. This game would actually be a pretty interesting matchup of the last time those two quarterbacks and these two teams met at the legendary Lambeau Field.
That was the 2020 NFC Championship Game, a 31-26 Bucs victory that sent the team to Super Bowl LV. That was also the culmination of the COVID season, which greatly impacted the size of crowds at most games. Even with Rodgers and Brady gone, the Packers would almost certainly like to exact some revenge for that game, this time with a packed Lambeau in full throat.
I'm also trying to play the odds a little bit here. The Buccaneers haven't played a season-opener against a team from their old division, the former NFC Central, since 2011, with the Detroit Lions visiting Raymond James Stadium. It's been nearly two decades since the Bucs started with a road game at one of their former Black-and-Blue Division foes; they most recently visited Minnesota in 2005.
There's enough intrigue in this matchup to make it interesting beyond the QB departures. The Packers will be seeing if they have done enough to add young talent around their new starter, Jordan Love, and if they can still produce at a high level offensively without Rodgers. The Buccaneers' defense looks like it would offer a good first test for Love after the team re-signed Jamel Dean and Lavonte David and added a lot of juice to their front in the draft with Calijah Kancey, YaYa Diaby and Jose Ramirez.
The Packers and Buccaneers have a lot of history with each other, the postseason included. This would be a good opportunity to add to it. We've seen Warren Sapp vs. Brett Favre and we've seen Shaq Barrett vs. Aaron Rodgers. Maybe now it's time for Calijah Kancey vs. Jordan Love.