NFL Photos | NFL Photography Gallery | NFL.com

Emmitt Smith through the years

It was this day in history, back in 2002, when Dallas Cowboys' running back Emmitt Smith became the NFL's all-time rushing leader, surpassing Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

Advertising
gallery

Most anticipated NFL homecoming games since 2000

-- By Garrett Podell, NFL Researcher

The 2021 NFL season -- the league's first 17-game campaign -- will arrive faster than Tyreek Hill running a fade route. In fact, the most anticipated game of 2021 is just 100 days away: Tom Brady returns to New England for the first time as a visitor on Oct. 3.

Brady, winner of six Super Bowl titles with the Patriots, is likely to receive a warm reception from the Foxborough faithful, but welcome-back cheers won't diminish the stakes in his return. Brady raced out to an early lead in the "Who deserves more credit for the dynasty?" debate with head coach Bill Belichick by winning Super Bowl LV in his first season with the Bucs. Back in New England, Belichick and the Patriots went 7-9, experiencing their first losing season since 2000. The franchise responded by spending over $250 million on contracts for 15 players this offseason, which is 1,000-plus percent more than the $24.4 million ($7.8 million guaranteed) they spent on 15 free-agent signings in 2020, per Spotrac. Needless to say, both sides will be highly motivated to win this matchup.

While many of us can't wait to see Brady versus Belichick in Week 4, I thought this would be a perfect time to look back at some of the most anticipated homecoming games from the first 21 seasons of the current millennium. The games are listed in order of anticipation leading up to kickoff, from least to most. The level of anticipation is tied to factors such as a player's status at the time of his return and how his tenure with his former team ended.