The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a little sloppy in their first game after a Super Bowl title. But there’s a reason they’re champions. And they still have Tom Brady.
In a thrilling NFL season opener, perhaps the best one since the NFL started opening the regular season with a Thursday night game, the Buccaneers rallied for a 31-29 win against the Dallas Cowboys. They trailed 29-28 with 1:24 left after a Cowboys field goal. Brady had been in that spot many times.
Brady led a game-winning drive Thursday, hitting key passes to Rob Gronkowski and one on the sideline to Chris Godwin, whose fumble earlier in the fourth quarter — Tampa Bay’s fourth turnover —led to a go-ahead Cowboys drive. That just set up the Bucs’ late heroics. Ryan Succop hit a game-winning field goal with two seconds left for the win.
Dak Prescott was great in his return for the Cowboys. But Brady was Brady, just like he has been for two decades. The Buccaneers still haven’t lost since last November.
Both teams air it out
The opening game might be a preview of the 2021 season. More teams than ever are realizing that passing generally leads to more points. Thursday night was a show from both quarterbacks.
While Ezekiel Elliott fantasy drafters freaked out, the Cowboys realized early on that their best way to win would be through the air. Elliott picked up blitzing linebackers way more often than he ran the ball. And the Cowboys moved the ball very well against a defense that rarely allows rushing yards. Prescott had 47 passing attempts … through three quarters. Entering the third quarter, Amari Cooper had more catches (10) than Elliott had rushing attempts (nine), and Cooper caught a pair of touchdowns.
The problem for the Cowboys wasn’t offense. It was the defense letting Brady throw for four touchdowns. He threw two to Gronkowski, and one each to Godwin and Antonio Brown.
It was an aerial show, with the Bucs leading 28-26 after three quarters. Prescott finished with 402 yards. Brady had 379. That won’t be the last time this season we see a score like that going into the fourth quarter or quarterbacks light up a defense
Buccaneers made mistakes
The Buccaneers looked like they were about to ice the game when Godwin was hit by safety Damontae Kazee and fumbled inside the 5-yard line. Dallas, which was trailing 28-26 at the time, recovered and had a little more than five minutes to put together a winning drive.
Turnovers were a theme for the Bucs. Leonard Fournette had a pass go through his hands for a Cowboys interception. Ronald Jones lost a fumble that led to a Cowboys touchdown. Tampa Bay will look back on the opener and know they should have won convincingly, but let Dallas stay in the game.
After Godwin’s fumble, the Cowboys started driving. A crucial holding penalty on Tyron Smith wiped out a 24-yard catch by CeeDee Lamb, but Prescott shook that off and hit Lamb again for 31 yards to the Tampa Bay 34. Cowboys guard Connor Williams had a big third-down holding penalty after that but Prescott got enough yards back for Greg Zuerlein to hit the go-ahead field goal.
Godwin’s catch on the final drive will be debated. He seemed to push off and offensive pass interference would have been a justifiable call. But he got into field-goal range and out of bounds with 18 seconds left. Brady threw some incompletions out of bounds to bleed the clock. Succop hit the field goal to give the Bucs a 1-0 record to start the season.
Dallas played a fine game and had its chance to pull a big upset. Brady was the difference.