TAMPA — Jon Gruden’s temper was desert hot. At the NFL owner’s meeting in Arizona, the Bucs coach learned his defending Super Bowl 37 champions would open the 2003 season at Philadelphia.
The Bucs had closed Veterans Stadium by beating the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Now they had become the first team to begin its defense of its NFL title by playing on the road in Week 1 at brand new Lincoln Financial Stadium to kick off the league’s regular-season schedule.
“The last (six) Super Bowl champions opened at home,” Gruden said. “I don’t see why we have to break that trend. I’m not going to worry or argue about things out of my control. We’re going to play our schedule, be prepared as we can be and make no excuses.”
Since 2003, 16 of the 17 defending Super Bowl champions have started the next season at home. The exception was 2013, when the Baltimore Ravens opened at Denver because they share a parking lot with the Orioles, who were at home.
The Bucs will open the season Sept. 9 at Raymond James Stadium. The only mystery would appear to be their first opponent for the league’s opener on NBC’s Thursday Night Football.
The leading candidates? The AFC East champion Buffalo Bills and the Dallas Cowboys.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is 31-3 all-time against the Bills, who lost to the Chiefs 38-24 in the AFC Championship Game in January.
The Bucs have several other home foes that are candidates to be Week 1 opponents. In addition to all the NFC South teams ― including a tantalizing pairing with the Saints and quarterback Jameis Winston — the Bears, Giants and Dolphins also are home opponents for the Bucs.
But division matchups to kick off the NFL season are rare. Since the Bucs won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, there have been only four interdivisional matchups involving the defending champs to kick off the following season.
What the NFL will want is a competitive game against a marquee team. The Dolphins have an improved defense. The Giants would pull in the nation’s No. 1 media market, but they’re not even favored to win their division.
Say what you want about the Cowboys, but they have one of the largest followings in the NFL as the self-proclaimed “America’s Team.” Their talent on offense is undeniable, and the return of quarterback Dak Prescott from a devastating injury is a huge story.
One thing to keep in mind is that intra-conference matchups for the first game of the NFL season are rare. Since 2003, there have been two.
The NBC Sunday Night Football crew will broadcast the game with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. Former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy was so excited about the possibilities that he thought the schedule release was Tuesday.
“Wow. I’m too anxious to see this year’s schedule,” Dungy tweeted. “I was a day ahead of myself. It’s not coming out until Wednesday. But I’m still betting on Buffalo at Tampa as our season opener on @SNFonNBC. We’ll see if I’m right??”
Of course, many fans have noted that the Bucs play at New England this season. Tom Brady, the prodigal son, returning to Gillette Stadium to play the Patriots may be the game of the year. Brady vs. Bill Belichick. It doesn’t get much better.
But this would figure to be an NFL on Fox game, and they’re not likely to give that one up to any network.
The good news for the Bucs is when they do kick off the NFL’s 102nd season Sept. 9 at Raymond James Stadium, they can expect a reasonable chance to start 1-0. Defending champions are 15-2 in the season opener since Gruden’s team went to Philadelphia to start the 2003 season.
Incidentally, the Bucs won that game, 17-0 on Monday Night Football.
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