When the NFL schedule gets released on Wednesday, you're going to notice some major changes and the biggest one is the fact that the regular season will be expanding from 16 to 17 games. It's the NFL's biggest season! However, one thing that won't be changing is the annual tradition that calls for the defending Super Bowl champion to play host for the first game of the season.
So who will the Buccaneers be playing in the opener?
That's what I'm here for. We already know all of the Buccaneers home opponents for 2021 -- Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Bears, Dolphins, Cowboys Giants and Bills -- so I'm going to rank them from least likely to play in the opener to most likely.
I'm giving both of these teams a zero percent chance of playing at Tampa Bay in Week 1. The NFL is going to do everything it can to avoid a blowout in the Thursday night opener and that means not putting Carolina or Atlanta in the game. The Buccaneers went a combined 4-0 against these two teams last season and they won those four games by an average of 14.5 points. Although both teams should be better this season, the NFL likes the opener to have some sex appeal that will draw in the casual viewer and these teams don't have that with both the Falcons and Panthers coming off losing seasons (4-12 for Atlanta, 5-11 for Carolina).
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Although the Giants struggled for most of the 2020 season, they did give us one of the best games of the year when they nearly upset the Buccaneers in a Week 8 prime-time game. The Buccaneers' 25-23 win wasn't sealed until Tampa Bay stopped a Giants' two-point conversion with just 28 seconds left.
Also, if the NFL wants a juicy storyline for this game, here's one for them: Giants coach Joe Judge apparently made fun of Tom Brady's "deteriorating" skills at some point last year.
Judge spent eight years in New England with Brady, so you can bet he'll be spending the rest of the offseason answering questions about these supposed comments if the Giants get picked to be in this game.
Judge isn't the only head coach on this list who has ties to Brady, so does Brian Flores. The Dolphins coach spent 11 seasons in New England with Brady (2008-19) and here's the best part: Flores was the defensive play-caller for part of that time, which means he was going up against Brady in practice every day. Flores has already beaten Brady once as coach of the Dolphins (27-24 in 2019) and there's no reason to think he can't do it again. Also, the Dolphins are coming off a 10-6 season and they could likely keep things close with the defending Super Bowl champs.
If Andy Dalton ends up starting in Week 1 for the Bears, that means the opening game of the 2021 NFL season would involve Andy Dalton playing in prime time and if you've ever seen Andy Dalton play in prime time, you know why the NFL would want to avoid that at all costs. Also, the Bears have been notoriously bad in Week 1 (1-6 in their past seven openers) and being notoriously bad isn't going to get you picked for this game.
That being said, the Bears do have two things going for them: They made the playoffs last year and they beat the Buccaneers in the regular season and those two reasons are why they're so high on this list.
The Cowboys are called "America's Team" for a reason and since we know it's not for their winning, I think we can assume it's for their ability to bring in monstrous TV ratings.
When it comes to ratings, the Cowboys are the NFL's golden goose. They regularly play in the highest-rated games of the year and if they played in the opener, the NFL would be able to push that fact nonstop in commercials for the next four straight months.
Also, Brady has never lost to the Cowboys in his career (5-0) and I'm sure you'd hear about that 5,000 times between now and September if this game gets picked.
The reason the Cowboys are listed at three here and not higher is because I see two issues with putting them in the opener. For one, this is the one game that doesn't need ratings help. Millions of fans are going to watch the opener no matter what, which means adding the Cowboys is only going to give the game a minimal bump. On the other hand, if the Cowboys-Buccaneers game is played at any point later in the season, the ratings would likely get a huge bump.
The other reason I don't like the Cowboys is because the Cowboys should do everything they can to NOT play in this game. Jerry Jones needs to call the NFL and say, "I'd rather see a flea bite a tick on the butt than play in this game." That sounds like something Jerry would say.
If I'm Jones, the last team I want to face in Week 1 is Tampa Bay, especially after watching what the Buccaneers did to Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl. Remember, Dak Prescott is coming off a devastating injury where part of his bone snapped and literally broke through the skin (The injury was a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle). If I'm the Cowboys, I want to see Prescott get a game or two under his belt before seeing him go up against a defense like the one that Tampa Bay has.
The NFL loves to promote a good revenge game and this one could give us one of the most intriguing revenge games of all time: Jameis Winston against the Buccaneers. In his first career start for the Saints, the former No. 1 overall pick would get to go back to Tampa Bay to face the team that drafted him.
Also, let's not forget, Tampa Bay struggled against the Saints last year. The Buccaneers went 1-2 against New Orleans and 14-3 against everyone else. Sure, the Saints won't have Drew Brees, but you could argue Tampa Bay's only win against New Orleans last season was actually Brees' fault (He threw three interceptions in the divisional round playoff loss), so not having Brees could make this game more intriguing. And let's not forget, even though the Saints lost that game, Jameis did get to burn his former team for a long touchdown pass.
The other upside for the NFL is that we already know these two teams can provide a ridiculously high television rating and that's because they did it last year. When Tampa Bay and New Orleans met back in Week 1 of 2020, it ended up being the second-highest rated game of the entire regular season (Cowboys-Washington was the only one higher, but that game had the benefit of being played in a window by itself on Thanksgiving).
The only reason this game isn't ranked at the top is because we don't know who the starting quarterback is going to be for New Orleans. Although Winston could certainly win the job, it could also go to Taysom Hill and that's just not as much fun. That being said, the QB spot might not matter as much as we think for this showdown. The reason the Saints went 2-0 against the Buccaneers in the regular season last year is because their defense shut down Brady, who threw a total of five interceptions in the two losses.
This Bills being ranked at the top here comes down to one thing: On paper, they're the best team on the Buccaneers home schedule this year and they have the fewest question marks. I mean, this was the Super Bowl that we almost got last year. If the Bills had been able to beat the Chiefs in the AFC title game, we would have seen the Bills facing the Buccaneers in Tampa, which actually might have been a better game, because let's be honest, not much can be worse than what we got from last year's Super Bowl.
One selling point in this game is the fact that it would give the Bills a chance to take down the one quarterback they can't seem to beat. Brady has a 32-3 record against Buffalo, which is the best record that any QB has against another opponent in the NFL.