A matchup of the highest profile -- featuring the reigning world champions against perhaps the most popular team in the football world -- will kick off the 2021 NFL season.
Tom Brady and the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will commence their quest to repeat against the visiting Dallas Cowboys when they open up the 2021 season at Raymond James Stadium at 8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 9 on NBC, the NFL announced Wednesday.
As the 2020 season reached its conclusion at Super Bowl LV in Tampa with the Buccaneers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the 2021 campaign will begin anew in the same place with those same Bucs taking centerstage.
The game's also prognosticated to see the long-awaited return of Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott after he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 of the 2020 campaign. After a 6-10 season, Dallas is no doubt ecstatic at the prospects of Prescott's return.
Not since the 1977 Oakland Raiders has a Super Bowl-winning team returned all 22 starters as the Buccaneers are doing. With general manager Jason Licht and head coach Bruce Arians having carried out their offseason agenda to a tee, how it plays out on the field will begin to come to fruition on the second Thursday in September.
Brady has Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski back and at his disposal along with a stellar offensive line, while the often-overlooked defense will once more be led by standouts Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.
While the Bucs are on a quest for back-to-back titles, the Cowboys are coming off back-to-back playoff-less seasons, which seems like an eternity in Big D, especially with a star-laden roster.
However, the looming question for the Cowboys is their defense and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will certainly have an arduous initial test game-planning to stop the G.O.A.T.
In his long and storied tenure with the New England Patriots, Brady was 5-0 against the Cowboys, though he has squared off opposite Prescott just once. That was a 2019 meeting in which Brady had the only touchdown pass in a 13-9 Patriots win. This Thursday night showcase portends to a much more high-scoring affair.
Brady's offensive bunch was a mercurial entity for a good portion of the 2020 campaign before ironing out the wrinkles and finding its championship form amid their title run. With title belts around their waists, the Buccaneers are aiming for more and the Cowboys, led by the returning Prescott, will be their first test.
The stars will most assuredly shine on the NFL's opening night.
Let's now briefly run down each of the other 15 Week 1 matchups, which offers a juicy slate from start to finish. (See the full NFL regular-season schedule here):
Sunday afternoon games, Sept. 12
AFC division titlists from a season ago, the Bills and Steelers clash with Buffalo aiming to carry its momentum from a run to the AFC Championship Game, while Pittsburgh is clinging tightly to the promise expunged by last season's freefall. Bills QB Josh Allen emerged as one of the elite players in the NFL last season, but will he maintain that lofty status in 2021? He'll certainly be tested on this opening Sunday against T.J. Watt and a vaunted Steelers defense. And will Ben Roethlisberger be starting a season-opener for the Steelers for the final time?
Schedule-makers offer up a much-ballyhooed "revenge game" right out of the gates, as Sam Darnold's second act begins in Carolina against the team that once drafted him third overall, but traded him this offseason. Darnold is likely to match up against the player he was traded to make room for, BYU product Zach Wilson, who was taken second overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Wilson and Robert Saleh eras for the Jets get going, while Matt Rhule's Carolina rebuild hits Year 2 and one of the most exciting players in the league, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, is set to return.
Just how good are things for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks and just how will the offense look under new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron? Just how will Carson Wentz fare now that he's moved on from the Eagles to the Colts and the familiar guidance of Frank Reich? Two of the offseason's most prevalent storylines will collide in this one with a pair of 2020 playoff squads seeking to start off return trips to the postseason on the right note.
Rarely does a rookie electrify such as Chargers signal-caller Justin Herbert did last year. Following his record-breaking rookie campaign, Herbert will look to carry over his sensational play under new head coach Brandon Staley. But the Bolts and the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year are faced with the reigning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in Chase Young and one of 2020's top defenses in Washington. Ryan Fitzpatrick is set to make his debut for the Washington Football Team, Fitzmagic's ninth team in just about the most exciting journeyman career there's ever been.
Another new dawn is upon us in Motown with Dan Campbell making his head-coaching debut for the Lions. Meanwhile, Kyle Shanahan's 49ers are looking for a fresh start after an injury-ravaged 2020 campaign. While the Trey Lance-Jimmy Garoppolo QB conundrum for the Niners will dominate interest and Jared Goff's first Lions start will come against an old NFC West rival, Nick Bosa looks to be back for San Francisco and is likely to go head-up with offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the seventh overall pick of the 2021 draft, a time or two.
The two-time reigning rushing king, Derrick Henry, is set to lead the Titans into 2021 along with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but this will be the first look at a Tennessee squad that's largely overhauled a struggling defense and lost some notable talent on offense. As for the Cardinals, they're ready to welcome back one of the best defensive talents in the game in Chandler Jones, who was sidelined for most of 2020. Jones will team up with the newly acquired J.J. Watt, who will make his anticipated debut for the Cards. This is also the onset of a pivotal season for head coach Kliff Kingsbury, as he and dynamic quarterback Kyler Murray start their third seasons in the desert in what could be a playoffs-or-bust year for the head coach.
An NFC clash offers up the debuts of two new head coaches. Nick Sirianni is set for his head-coaching introduction with the Eagles and Jalen Hurts is likely to begin his run as Philadelphia's QB1 with Heisman Trophy-winner and first-round pick DeVonta Smith to throw to. Arthur Smith will also begin his days as Falcons head coach. Along with the head coaches, this one offers up the first games of two of the 2021 draft class' most exciting skill players, as Smith looks to take flight for the Eagles and Kyle Pitts, whose selection at fourth overall was the highest ever for a tight end, looks to shine for the Falcons.
Fingers are crossed that the Bengals' season opener will also mark the return of Joe Burrow, whose promising 2020 rookie campaign was cut short due to a horrendous knee injury. If Burrow's back in the lineup, he'll have a new and yet familiar option to throw to in Ja'Marr Chase, the No. 5 pick of the draft who previously played with Burrow at LSU. Minnesota will look to rebound from a subpar 2020 with head coach Mike Zimmer zeroed in on turning his defense around, while the offense boasts one of the league's best backs, Dalvin Cook.
Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, is poised to make his first NFL start in Houston. And just who will start the opener for the Texans at QB will be a question finally answered. David Culley is also set for his head-coaching debut across from another rookie head coach in Urban Meyer. These AFC South rivals will have two of the most changed rosters in the league and, who knows, maybe Tim Tebow will even make a cameo.
Offseason darlings once more, the Browns and quarterback Baker Mayfield have hopes on high and promise aplenty for the 2021 campaign, but they must start it off where it all ended in their 2020 campaign. The two-time reigning AFC-champion Chiefs will debut against the Cleveland squad they downed in memorable fashion in the AFC Divisional Round with Patrick Mahomes sidelined by an injury. Just how much of an AFC heavyweight the Browns can be will be glimpsed in Week 1, while Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyrann Mathieu will return to the field for the initial time since losing the Super Bowl. Will they begin a campaign hell-bent on reclaiming their title form or will their championship loss linger?
The start of the post-Drew Brees era gets underway for the Saints, while the Packers' drama with franchise superstar QB Aaron Rodgers will have come to a head (probably). Intrigue reigns supreme at the QB spot with the Rodgers-Packers saga and the Saints' competition between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. However, this one is also a battle between longtime NFC powerhouses who each won their divisions last year and are aiming to maintain their status -- the Saints carrying on following Brees' retirement and the Packers moving on however the Rodgers dramatics play out.
An AFC East rivalry reconvenes in Week 1 with Bill Belichick squaring off once again with former assistant Brian Flores. Just how the Patriots will look after an unprecedented offseason that featured a cavalcade of free-agent additions -- Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry and Matt Judon among them -- will be displayed for the first time. The Dolphins also have some promising additions in rookie Jaylen Waddle and free agent Will Fuller, each of them called on to help Tua Tagovailoa as Miami goes all-in with the former Alabama star as its franchise QB. But will Tagovailoa start opposite his former 'Bama teammate Mac Jones, the Patriots' first-round pick, or Cam Newton?
A Super Bowl XXI rematch features two teams with promising defenses, but all eyes will be on the QBs in this one. For the Broncos, will it be Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock (or maybe even someone else) getting the start? And for the Giants, Daniel Jones begins his third season -- a hugely crucial one at that as his and the team's success are likely to determine if he remains as the franchise's QB of the future. Superstar talents Von Miller of the Broncos and Saquon Barkley of the Giants are also likely to make long-awaited returns after lost 2020s due to injury.
Sunday Night Football, Sept. 12
The first Sunday night of the new season features two of the top defenses in the league, led by three of the NFL's most highly-regarded defensive stars: Chicago's Khalil Mack and Los Angeles' Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald, the three-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and perhaps the best player in the NFL. While the defenses are known commodities in this one, the game will see new starters at quarterback for both teams. Following a blockbuster trade to acquire him, Matthew Stafford will take to the field for the first time under the bright L.A. lights, while the Bears will have offseason signing Andy Dalton or No. 11 overall pick Justin Fields under center. Playoff teams from a season ago with franchise-altering changes at the most important position start new eras against one another.
Monday Night Football, Sept. 13
Already one of the most electrifying talents to ever put his fleet feet to an NFL field, Lamar Jackson is set for his third season as the Ravens' starting QB and looking to open up the aerial attack. With first-round rookie Rashod Bateman and free-agent acquisition Sammy Watkins added to the mix, Jackson and a potentially reworked Greg Roman offense will get to work against a Raiders defense that's been a thorn in Jon Gruden's side since he rejoined the Silver and Black. This is a momentous season for Gruden, whose return to the Raiders helm has yet to produce a playoff trip. And while the Raiders are synonymous with Monday night, this will also be Jackson's first Monday night game since an all-time performance in Week 14 of last season when he emerged from the locker room late in the game to reignite the Ravens to a comeback victory over the Browns.