8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Buccaneers -8, Over/Under: 51.5
The National Football League finally returns in full force tonight, as it’s most recognizable franchise faces off against it’s most celebrated Quarterback as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look to kick off their Super Bowl reign with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys, who are desperate to rebound from a miserable campaign plagued by injuries. Indeed, the Mike McCarthy Era in Dallas couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, what with a wealth of issues facing the Head Coach throughout his first season with the team; in addition to being at the disadvantage of acclimating themselves to a roster in which the pandemic severely limited all interactions with their charges and their preparation throughout the Offseason, a slew of high-profile players succumbed to various injuries. Of course, the biggest name to bite the dust was (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott (68.0%, 1,856 YDS, 7.72 NY/A, 9 TD, 4 INT, 78.7 QBR), who broke his leg just five games into the campaign, following a torrid start in which he had averaged a whopping 371.2 yards per game through the air. It was certainly a debilitating turn of events for a player whom over the previous few years had clearly outperformed his rookie contract and spent the majority of the Offseason embroiled in a contentious negotiation with Management in search of a raise befitting his CV; a fourth round pick back in 2016, the 28-year old had put together a solid 42-27 record as the starter, accounting for a stellar 130 touchdowns en route to leading the Cowboys to a pair of NFC East titles. With his team slumping to a 6-10 finish without him, (Owner) Jerry Jones ended the contractual saga by signing Prescott to a mammoth four-year, $160 million deal, including a whopping $66 million signing bonus with over $120 million in guarantees. Now it’ll be up to the signal-caller to repay the franchise’s investment, as both he and McCarthy look to get off to a proper start together in 2021. With that said, Prescott’s health isn’t the only concern coming into the new season for Big D. The Offensive Line regressed significantly last year, with injuries hitting them hard in a number of areas, including at Left Tackle, where (perennial All-Pro) Tyron Smith missed all but two games with an ailing back, Guard, where (fellow All-Pro) Zack Martin, missed six outings of his own due to a variety of maladies, all the while struggling to replace (former Pro-Bowl Center) Travis Frederick, who retired in 2019 after being diagnosed with a unique muscle condition. As a result, the run game slumped to seventeenth overall (111.8) and twenty-third in terms of yards per attempt (4.2), with both figures well below their typical lofty standards, while Dallas struggled MIGHTILY in the Red Zone where they managed a touchdown on dreadful 50.0% of their trips to that location of the gridiron (29th Overall). Granted, a lot of this had to do with the revolving door under Center following Prescott’s injury, but their inability to move the ball in the trenches was downright startling. Coming into 2021 and the outlook for the group as a whole is rather murky; Martin will miss tonight’s contest on the NFL’s Reserve/COVID-19 List, while (Right Tackle) La’el Collins missed the majority of the Preseason with a tender neck. Lastly, the play of the Defense will go a long way towards defining this campaign for Dallas. Simply put, McCarthy dropped the ball in a major way on this side of the football, particularly in tabbing longtime colleague, Mike Nolan, as his Defensive Coordinator. While Nolan is a fine coach in his own right, he proved to be a TERRIBLE fit for the personnel at his disposal; the Cowboys yielded a franchise-worst 29.6 points (28th Overall) on 386.4 total yards (23rd Overall), including a miserable 158.8 rushing yards (31st Overall) on 5.0 yards per carry (30th Overall). Injuries struck here too, with (Linebackers) Leighton Vander Esch (60 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF) and Sean Lee (20 TKL, 1 QBH) missing a combined thirteen games with various injuries, though the biggest problem was clearly the X’s & O’s; after years of deploying a Tampa-Two/Seattle Cover-Three scheme under the guidance of (former assistants) Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli, Nolan utterly failed in ushering in his preferred 3/4 base defense, ultimately costing the 61-year old his job. Replacing him is former Atlanta Falcons’ Head Coach, Dan Quinn, who on paper appears to be a more better fit for the personnel; Quinn spent two seasons as Seattle’s Defensive Coordinator, taking the Legion of Boom to the highest of highs, leading the league in points and total yards allowed in both years, culminating in a Lombardi Trophy in 2013. Look for this year’s first round pick, Micah Parsons (12th Overall), to make a strong first impression, with the athletic Linebacker’s skillset tailormade for Quinn’s scheme.
Meanwhile, after an eighteen-year wait the Buccaneers once again felt the joy of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, their second in franchise history after utterly dismantling the reigning champion Chiefs, 30-9. In hindsight, Tampa Bay made the ballsiest move of the Offseason in signing (three-time MVP Quarterback) Tom Brady (65.7%, 4,633 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 40 TD, 12 INT, 72.5 QBR) after the six-time Super Bowl Champion ended his 20-year run with the Patriots and became a Free Agent. While this particular marriage was far from smooth throughout the first half of the season, Brady and the Bucs developed the requisite chemistry necessary for a lengthy postseason run, with the club hitting the road in the Playoffs where they pulled off upset after upset, knocking off (NFC South rival) New Orleans (30-20), followed by (NFC top seed) Green Bay (31-26) in successive weeks, before embarrassing Kansas City in early February. So how have they followed up that triumph, you ask? By getting virtually the ENTIRE band back together for another run. Indeed, a league where Super Bowl Champions are picked apart in Free Agency by their competition not long after the proverbial dust settles, the Buccaneers have remained remarkably intact, returning all twenty-two of their starters on both sides of the football, along with both their Offensive and Defensive Coordinators. To put this into proper perspective, (General Manager) Jason Licht and (Head Coach) Bruce Arians managed to pull off something that has happened since 1977. And it’s with that said, that we can in all likelihood expect a stronger, more efficient Bucs team who unlike last summer have had the benefit of a full and proper Offseason to build upon the foundation laid in 2020. Brady, who turned 44-years old last month, continues to defy the laws of the universe, and as long the Offensive Line keeps him upright should continue to take advantage of one of the most talented and diverse supporting cast of his venerable career; he threw the second-most touchdowns of his career (40), and posted his highest QBR since 2016 (72.5), while seeing a significant 1.07-yard boost to his net yards per attempt (7.12). Rejoining him are (former Pro-Bowlers) Antonio Brown (45 REC, 483 YDS, 10.7 Y/R, 4 TD) and Leonard Fournette (97 CAR, 367 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 6 TD), who were both acquired after the season officially began on cut-price deals, while the services of (underrated Receiver) Chris Godwin (65 REC, 840 YDS, 12.9 Y/R, 7 TD) were retained via the Franchise Tag. Oh, and his longtime running mate, (All-Pro Tight End) Rob Gronkowski (45 REC, 623 YDS, 113.8 Y/R, 7 TD) is back too, after he came out of retirement for the chance to win a fourth Lombardi with Brady. The Defense returns loaded too, with (DC) Todd Bowles ready to get back to work with a physical unit that ranked eighth in points allowed (22.2) and sixth in total defense (327.2), all the pacing the league against the run (80.6). Needless to say, this group is massive in the trenches, where the likes of (Tackles) Vita Vea (10 TKL, 3 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.0 SK), Ndamukong Suh (44 TKL, 9 TFL, 19 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD), and William Gholston (44 TKL, 8 TFL, 20 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 PD) are nigh immovable when they wish to be. Edge-Rushers, Jason Pierre-Paul (55 TKL, 7 TFL, 14 QBH, 9.5 SK, 4 FF, 2 INT, 6 PD) and Shaquil Barrett (57 TKL, 11 TFL, 16 QBH, 8.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 SFTY) each returned on new deals in the Offseason, ensuring a pass-rush that amassed a healthy forty-eight sacks will continue to terrorize opposing Quarterbacks, though the unquestioned gem of this Defense has got to be (Pro-Bowl Linebacker) Devin White (140 TKL, 15 TFL, 16 QBH, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD). Only in his second season in the NFL, the 23-year old looks like a superstar on the rise, covering ground like a Cornerback and hitting ball-carriers like a heat-seeking missile. These were just a few of the faces that absolutely humiliated the Chiefs and their high-flying attack led by (2018 MVP) Patrick Mahomes, relegating the league’s most prolific Offense to a scant nine points on 350 total yards, including a combined 4-of-16 on third and fourth down, while getting up close and personal with Mahomes like no group had done before. Seriously, this was downright surreal, folks, for Bowles’ charges hit Mahomes (26-of-49, 270 YDS, 2 INT) on nine occasions, sacked him thrice, forced a fumble, and picked him off twice, marking the first time in career (dating back to High School) in which his team failed to score a single touchdown in a game that he started. White logged one of those interceptions, while Suh and Barrett combined for 2.5 sacks and six of those hits. This group will be in all likelihood be frothing at the mouth for the opportunity to personally welcome the aforementioned Prescott back to the playing field, for you can expect them to test the current state of Dallas’ Offensive Line in tonight’s affair, with the performance of both teams in the trenches projected to be the deciding factor.