The 2021 NFL season already promised to be unprecedented. After last-year's bizarro campaign of empty stadiums and football on Wednesdays, a measure of return to normalcy is a shock in and of itself.
But if Thursday's season-opener in front a packed house at Raymond James Stadium was any indication, then the 2021 season is going to be even wilder than we thought. The defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers held off a hard-charging Dallas team to serve notice that they aren't giving up their throne without a fight. The Cowboys showed that they will likely be a force in the NFC East this year.
NFL football is back. And it came back with a bang.
There was absolutely no question what the dominant offseason storyline was for the Cowboys: The health of star quarterback Dak Prescott. After losing most of the 2020 season to a fractured ankle (an injury that thoroughly wrecked things in Big D), concern ratcheted up when Prescott missed much of camp and didn't play in the preseason because of a strained throwing shoulder.
"I'm definitely ready," Prescott said. "I love it the way it is (and) wouldn't want it any other way, to be honest. I love night games. Love playing on prime time. I think it's just set for the perfect stage. Them coming off the Super Bowl title, and us, having fans back to full capacity, I think this is what the NFL and the world needs. From the shoulder to the leg to my mind, I'm ready to go."
He wasn't kidding even a little.
If there was any question about Prescott's readiness for the season, it was answered in the affirmative early on. On the Cowboys second drive of the game, Prescott led the team 75 yards in seven plays before finding wide receiver CeeDee Lamb from 22 yards out.
It was something of a theme on the night.
With the Cowboys completely unable to move the ball on the ground against a Tampa run defense that has led the league in yards per game allowed each of the past two years, it fell to Prescott to guide the Dallas offense. To carry the team.
Carry it he did—in his first live game action since signing a four-year, $160 million extension with $126 million guaranteed, Prescott lit up one on the NFL's best defenses for 403 yards and three touchdowns on 42-of-58 passing. Veteran wide receiver Amari Cooper blew up to the tune of 13 catches for 139 yards and two scores. Lamb added 104 yards and a score on seven grabs. Prescott was sacked just once, and his lone interception was more Lamb's fault than the quarterback's.
When Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein punched through a 48-yard field goal with 1:24 left in the game, it appeared that Prescott may have engineered an impressive comeback—a win that could set the tone for an entire season in Dallas.
There was just one problem.
That problem's name was Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
At this point in what may be the greatest career of any player at any position in the history of the National Football League, nothing that Brady does should really surprise us anymore. He's the second-oldest quarterback to ever start an NFL game and the only signal-caller to ever make 300 regular-season starts.
But it's still nothing short of amazing to see a 44-year-old quarterback playing like he's 24. To watch Brady hit wide receiver Antonio Brown perfectly in stride with a 47-yard seed in the second quarter.
Brady matched Prescott blow-for-blow. Touchdown for touchdown. He also landed the last punch, leading the Bucs on an 11-play, 57-yard drive that culminated in Ryan Succop's game-winner from 36 yards out.
At game's end, Brady was 32-of-50 for 379 yards and three scores. His two interceptions came on a tipped ball off the fingers of running back Leonard Fournette and a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. Brown (five catches for 121 yards and a score), wideout Chris Godwin (nine grabs for 105 yards and a touchdown) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (eight catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns) all had massive games.
After the game, Brady expressed relief that the Buccaneers prevailed—and the understanding that the team still has work to do.
"Obviously a lot to improve on," he told Michele Tafoya of NBC Sports. "But I'm glad we won it. Ryan made a huge kick at the end. Defense made some really big stops for us. But turnovers, penalties, a few missed assignments … we gotta get back to work."
He's right in that regard. The Buccaneers can't be happy to have allowed over 451 yards of offense. Tampa also turned the ball over four times and committed 11 penalties. As wins go, it wasn't an especially clean one.
Conversely, the Cowboys have to be upset to have come so close only to be unable to seal the deal. Zuerlein missed a short field goal and an extra point. Dan Quinn's new defense may be better than last year's sieve on that side of the ball, but that doesn't make them good; 0-1 is 0-1.
But the Cowboys showed they can hang with the best in the conference on the road. To say the schedule lightens up from here is an understatement—Dallas doesn't play another team that made the postseason in 2020 until they visit Kansas City on Nov. 21.
If Thursday's nailbiter was a mixed bag for the teams involved, it was an absolute delight for fans—a roller-coaster of big plays and phenomenal quarterback play. If that was a preview of what's to come in 2021, we're all going to need oxygen by Thanksgiving.
Of course, those games are lacking a certain Brady factor.
But hey, you can't have everything.