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Tom Brady threw for four touchdowns and Ryan Succop kicked a 36-yard field goal with two seconds remaining as the Bucs withstood the Cowboys 31-29 in their regular-season opener Thursday at Raymond James Stadium.
The game, before a national television audience, served as the official kickoff of the 2021 NFL season.
Leading by 2 late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs appeared to be driving for a game-sealing touchdown when Chris Godwin took a Brady pass inside the Cowboys 5. But Godwin fumbled into the end zone while fighting for extra yards, and Damontae Kazee recovered, giving Dallas one last chance.
The Cowboys drove to the Bucs 30, but a holding penalty against Connor Williams forced Dallas into a third-and-16 situation from the 40. The Cowboys got the 10 yards back on a pass to Amari Cooper, allowing Greg Zuerlein — who missed three kicks earlier in the game — to convert a go-ahead, 48-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining.
It was too much time for Brady, who led the Bucs on an 11-play, 57-yard drive to win the game.
A 20-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski over the middle and a 24-yard back-shoulder throw to Godwin down the left sideline set up the Bucs at the Cowboys 18, where they put the game into Succop’s hands.
Brady finished 32-of-50 for 372 yards, including touchdown passes of 2 and 11 yards to Gronkowski, 5 to Godwin and 47 to Antonio Brown. He was intercepted twice.
Brown (121 yards) and Godwin (105) each exceeded 100 receiving yards, and Gronkowski had eight catches for 90.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott completed 42 of 58 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Carlton Davis had an interception and three passes defended, Lavonte David made 11 tackles and Devin White added 10 tackles (including eight unassisted) to lead the Bucs defense.
Here’s how it happened:
Leonard Fournette had a pass go off his hands, resulting in an interception, in the first half. But the Bucs running back made up for it with a great catch late in the fourth quarter that might have been one of the biggest of the game.
Fournette beat Micah Parsons to the ball after a stumbling Tom Brady essentially threw the ball up for grabs near the right sideline, preventing a turnover, giving Tampa Bay a first down and keeping the drive alive.
However, just as the Bucs appeared poised to put the game away, they gave away the ball.
Chris Godwin fumbled into the end zone while fighting for extra yardage at the 3 and Damontae Kazee recovered, returning it to the 10 to give the Cowboys possession with about five minutes remaining.
What could have been
With the Bucs leading by 2 and facing third-and-10 from the Cowboys 47 just under three minutes into the fourth quarter, Chris Godwin got open deep behind the Cowboys secondary but dropped a pass from Tom Brady.
Brady threw away from coverage, but it forced Godwin to turn around, making for a more difficult catch.
Instead of a first down inside the Dallas 10, Tampa Bay had to punt, Bradley Pinion pinning the Cowboys deep in their own territory for the third time in the game.
Down nine, the Cowboys showed more balance than they had for most of the game, running five times and throwing five passes during a 10-play, 75-yard drive that brought them back within two.
Dak Prescott’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with Ross Cockrell in coverage was the big play, trimming Dallas’ deficit to 28-26 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
Ezekiel Elliott, quiet for much of the game, carried three times on the drive for 17 yards, including a 13-yard gain to the Cowboys 38.
Turnabout is fair play
After twice giving the Cowboys the ball deep in Bucs territory in the second quarter, Tampa Bay turned the tables midway through the third.
Carlton Davis intercepted a Dak Prescott pass into traffic at midfield and returned it to the Cowboys 19. An illegal block in the back penalty against Shaquil Barrett on the return moved the ball back to the 35.
Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski for 20 yards on a back shoulder throw down the right sideline to the 15. Brady went back to Gronkowski two plays later, hitting him in stride on an inside release over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown.
Gronkowski’s 100th career scoring catch from Brady and second of the game extended the Bucs’ lead to 28-19 with 6:23 to play in the third quarter.
Secondary a primary concern
The second half started much like the first for the Bucs defense, which saw yet another member of the secondary leave the field.
This time, it was safety Mike Edwards, was taken to the locker room to receive an IV. He was replaced by Andrew Adams, who was activated off the practice squad earlier in the day.
The Cowboys went right at Adams, who was penalized for interfering with Blake Jarwin, moving the ball to the Bucs 18.
Adams bounced back to drop Ezekiel Elliott for a 1-yard loss on third-and-goal from the 2, and Dallas had to settle for a 21-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal and a 21-19 deficit with 9:15 left in the third quarter.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting was lost for the game with an elbow injury early in the first half.
Halftime: Bucs 21, Cowboys 16
Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes to three different receivers and Antonio Brown had 118 receiving yards as the Bucs led the Cowboys by five at halftime.
Brady connected on scoring passes of 5 yards to Chris Godwin, 2 to Rob Gronkowski and 47 to Brown. He finished the half 13-of-21 for 213 yards.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was similarly effective, connecting on 23 of 32 attempts for 224 yards and two scores.
Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein converted a 35-yard field goal but missed on attempts from 31 and 60 yards, as well as an extra-point kick.
Brady was intercepted twice, once on a deflected pass and on a desperation pass at the end of the half. Ronald Jones lost a fumble.
Focus of attention
The Cowboys started to pick on Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean after Sean Murphy-Bunting was lost for the game to an elbow injury.
It resulted in a 26-yard penalty to the Tampa Bay 38 late in the second quarter after Dean was called for pass interference and facemasking infractions against Michael Gallup on the same play.
A Dak Prescott pass to CeeDee Lamb moved the ball to the 21, but a Shaquil Barrett sack and holding penalty against Connor Williams forced Dallas into a fourth-and-31 situation from the Tampa Bay 42.
Inexplicably, the Cowboys tried a 60-yard field goal, and Greg Zuerlein’s attempt was no good, giving the Bucs possession near midfield with 15 seconds remaining on the clock. Brady’s desperation pass as time expired in the half was intercepted in the end zone by Jourdan Lewis, who returned it to the Tampa Bay 42.
Taking it back
The Cowboys’ lead was short-lived.
Two plays after Greg Zuerlein’s go-ahead field goal, Tom Brady threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, who beat cornerback Anthony Brown down the right sideline.
The scoring play put the Bucs back ahead 21-16 with 2:38 remaining in the half.
For the second straight possession, the Bucs gave the ball away on their first play of the drive.
With the Cowboys blitzing, Tom Brady threw a screen pass to Leonard Fournette, but the ball bounced off the running back’s fingertips into the hands of cornerback Trevon Diggs at the Tampa Bay 21.
The Bucs had a chance to get the ball back, but linebacker Lavonte David dropped an interception on a pass over the middle, allowing Greg Zuerlein, who missed a 31-yard field goal and extra-point kick earlier in the quarter, a chance from 35 yards.
This time, Zuerlein was true, his kick giving the Cowboys their first lead of the game, 16-14, with 3:16 to play in the half.
After getting a break on a missed field goal, the Bucs gave the ball right back to the Cowboys.
DeMarcus Lawrence forced a Ronald Jones fumble on the Bucs’ first play of the next drive and Randy Gregory recovered at the Tampa Bay 27.
Dak Prescott found Cedrick Wilson over the middle for 13 yards to the Bucs 12, then ran 7 yards around left end.
His 5-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper should have tied the game, except Greg Zuerlein — yep, him again — missed the extra point, keeping the Bucs ahead 14-13 with 4:20 left in the half.
The Bucs helped the Cowboys down the field during a mid-second-quarter drive, a pair of infractions accounting for 19 yards.
Carlton Davis was penalized 14 yards for interfering with Amari Cooper, giving Dallas possession at the Tampa Bay 39. Three plays later, Jamel Dean was flagged for holding Michael Gallup, moving the ball to the 20.
The Bucs gave the Cowboys another break when what could have been an interception slipped through Davis’ hands in the end zone.
They managed to escape unscathed thanks to Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein, who missed badly on a 31-yard field goal.
Sharing the wealth
Tom Brady featured Chris Godwin on the following possession, connecting with the receiver on pass plays of 19 and 17 yards to set up the Bucs at the Cowboys 7.
After a 5-yard Leonard Fournette run, Brady hit former Patriots teammate Rob Gronkowski on a 2-yard scoring pass, restoring the Bucs’ lead.
The six-play, 50-yard drive gave Tampa Bay a 14-7 lead with just under 10 minutes to play in the second quarter.
The Bucs’ final drive of the opening quarter didn’t result in any points, but it further established Antonio Brown as a dangerous receiving threat.
Brady hit Brown deep over the middle for 27 yards to the Dallas 47. It was Brown’s third reception on four targets in the quarter for 71 yards.
Anything you can do ...
Undaunted by the Bucs’ scoring drive, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott responded with seven straight completions of his own as Dallas drove 75 yards to tie the game.
Prescott’s 22-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb down the left side tied the game at 7 with 1:35 remaining in the first quarter.
Bucs cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting remained down on the field after the play and left for the locker room. He was later ruled out for the rest of the game with an elbow injury, with Jamel Dean expected to step into his spot in the secondary.
Prescott also had completions of 12 yards to Michael Gallup and 11 to Tony Pollard on the drive.
Jones gets involved, Brady heats up
After Leonard Fournette started the game, Ronald Jones was in the backfield for the Bucs’ second possession. Tampa Bay didn’t waste any time getting him involved, as he gained 5 yards on first down.
Brady started to heat up as well, connecting over the middle with wide receiver Mike Evans for 10 yards and tight end Rob Gronkowski for 19 before hitting receiver Antonio deep down the right sideline for 28 yards to the Cowboys 32.
Brady went right back to Brown on the next play, picking up 16 more yards to the 16. An 8-yard completion to Chris Godwin moved the ball to the 5.
Brady found Godwin open over the middle on the next play, the 5-yard scoring pass giving the Bucs an early 7-0 lead.
The drive covered 94 yards on nine plays, seven passes and two runs.
Cowboys on the move
Bradley Pinion pinned the Cowboys deep in their territory with a 65-yard punt to the Dallas 2, but the Cowboys needed just one play to create some breathing room. With the Bucs blitzing, Dak Prescott found Amari Cooper open down the left sideline for a 28-yard gain.
Three plays later, Ezekiel Elliott went over left guard for 2 yards and another first down on third-and-1.
A 16-yard completion to tight end Dalton Schultz moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 39.
But it was all for naught, as the drive ended with a punt. After a false start penalty moved the ball back to the 44, Prescott threw incomplete for CeeDee Lamb on third-and-15 with Lavonte David blitzing.
Bucs go three-and-out on opening possession
The Bucs’ first possession of the 2021 season came up empty.
After starting at their 25-yard line following a touchback, Leonard Fournette carried twice for eight yards, setting up third-and-2 from the 33. But with the Cowboys’ pressure moving him out of the pocket, Tom Brady overthrew Chris Godwin deep down the right side of the field.
Raising the banner
Rookies Darden, Trask among tonight’s inactives
In a move likely to repeat itself for the foreseeable future, the Bucs designated rookie quarterback Kyle Trask as one of their inactive players for tonight’s season opener against the Cowboys.
Slightly more surprising was the fact that fellow 2021 draft pick Jaelon Darden and second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn join him on the inactive list.
Bucs open season in search of second straight title
Twice as nice as doubling up on titles? Doing it a second time.
Just over seven months after the Buccaneers became the first NFL team to win the Super Bowl in its home stadium and little more than two months after the Lightning secured their second straight Stanley Cup, the Bucs begin their quest to join their NHL counterparts as back-to-back champions.
All eyes will be on Tampa tonight as the 2021 NFL season officially gets underway with the Bucs hosting the Dallas Cowboys in a nationally televised primetime game at Raymond James Stadium. (8:20 p.m., NBC)
With the Super Bowl 55 banner to be raised and more than 67,000 fans in attendance, it should have the feel of a heavyweight champ ascending into the ring, Times beat reporter Rick Stroud writes.
Seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady is back happier and healthier than ever, thanks to a contract extension that keeps him in Tampa Bay through the end of the 2022 season and offseason surgery to repair a torn MCL in his left knee.
He’ll be joined by the other 21 starters from last season’s championship team, all of whom also have returned.
While Brady was the most important piece, that core of the team was built from 2018-20 with the greatest three-year run of drafts in Bucs history, according to sports columnist John Romano. The haul included defensive tackle Vita Vea, inside linebacker Devin White, tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr., to name a few.
The Bucs will enter tonight’s game with no one on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and only one starter — fourth-year safety Jordan Whitehead — out for the game. Mike Edwards, who appeared in all 20 contests last season, is expected to replace Whitehead, who is nursing a hamstring injury.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who suffered a horrific ankle injury almost 11 months ago and had little practice in training camp and no preseason games to help with his recovery, nevertheless proclaimed himself ready to play days before the game.
Earlier Thursday, the Bucs announced that they’ve utilized their two practice-squad elevations to activate safety Andrew Adams and wide receiver/kick returner Jaydon Mickens. Rookie Jaelon Darden is inactive, so Mickens likely will handle the return duties.
And since we’re still in a pandemic, it’s worth noting: Tailgating is permitted at Raymond James to start the season, and temperature checks are not required. Masks are encouraged but not required.
If things don’t go Tampa Bay’s way, no worries. Both of the Bucs’ championship teams and three of the four squads to reach the NFC title game lost their season openers, beat reporter Joey Knight writes.
Ed Sheeran gets the party started
Thunderstorms should subside by kickoff
If you were fortunate enough to snag a ticket to the Buccaneers’ sold-out opening game, you may want to grab a rain jacket.
Thunderstorms rolling into Tampa Bay from the Gulf of Mexico are dropping large amounts of rain on the region, particularly in Citrus and Hernando counties, where a flood advisory was issued Thursday morning.
The thunderstorms were expected to remain in the area through the afternoon, according to Spectrum Bay News 9 Juli Marquez, but should shift to being just light showers by this evening. That means Bucs fans looking to tailgate may have their plans spoiled, but the game itself likely isn’t at risk of being postponed or canceled.
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A little light reading
Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game:
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