TAMPA, Fla. — As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field this fall as defending Super Bowl Champions, the schedule and team rebuilds come together to make the path to hoisting a second straight Lombardi trophy look, at least on paper, relatively easy.
Before looking at the schedule, a quick look around the NFC South shows a depleted division without much of a challenge for Tampa Bay. The New Orleans Saints will be starting over without future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who retired in the offseason. The Saints will trot out either Taysom Hill or a familiar face to the Buccaneers, Jameis Winston. Neither quarterback will strike much fear into Tampa’s defense, or many other defenses around the NFL.
Also starting over with a new quarterback will be the Carolina Panthers. After one year with Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers have gone all in with New York Jets bust Sam Darnold. While he was never surrounded with any talent in New York, Darnold will have some gifted players around him, most notably running back Christian McCaffrey. Still, Darnold’s not been able to put it together in the NFL thus far and may not be able to compete in the NFC South just yet.
That leaves the aging Atlanta Falcons as possibly the biggest threat to the Buccaneers in the NFC South. The Falcons will return quarterback Matt Ryan, who, like Brady, continues to play at a very high level as his career begins to wind down. Atlanta drafted tight end Kyle Pitts and if he’s as good as advertised, could form a lethal passing offense with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley at receiver. That is if Jones can stay on the field and unless the Falcons trade him as he nears the end of a Hall of Fame career.
Looking at the division, it’s easy to see the Bucs could theoretically run the table in the NFC South, depending on injuries and what happens in Atlanta before the season starts. Past those six games, the Bucs had a relatively easy draw for cross-divisional games with the NFC East, or as some called it last year, the NFC Least.
In 2020, no team in the NFC East finished with a winning record. The division was won by the Washington Football Team who finished 7-9 on the season and were disposed of in the Wild Card Round of the 2020 NFL Playoffs by the Bucs. In that game, Washington gave up 507 yards of offense to Tampa Bay including 365 passing yards and 142 rushing yards.
Past Washington, the NFC East standings in 2020 rounded out with the New York Giants second, Dallas Cowboys third and the Philadelphia Eagles last at 4-11. Combined, the division was outscored by 233 points last season and none had a winning record in non-conference games.
That leaves four key games on the schedule for the Bucs starting with a road game in Week 3 against a remade Los Angeles Rams team. The Rams will debut Pro Bowl quarterback Matthew Stafford in their offense in Week 1 hoping to regain the Super Bowl form the team had two years ago.
Stafford will be throwing to a wide receiving corps that includes veterans Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and DeSean Jackson while the running game will be anchored by Cam Akers, a second-year back out of Florida State. Los Angeles hopes to improve on an offense that ranked 22nd in scoring and near the bottom of the league in passing touchdowns, interceptions, and overall turnovers. But they will bring back arguably the best defense in the league that led the league in scoring, yards given up, passing touchdowns and other categories.
While that game will be big, for Bucs future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, the next game on the schedule in Week 4 may be one of his most memorable. That’s when he makes his first return to New England since he left the Patriots before last season. Brady’s time with New England solidified his status as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, which was only strengthened by leading the Bucs to a Super Bowl win in his first season in Tampa Bay.
When Brady takes the field against New England, it’s going to be a completely different team than the one he last saw in Foxborough. The Bucs will have either veteran Cam Newton under center at quarterback, or possibly rookie first-round pick Mac Jones. They will be throwing to a receiving corps that features Nelson Agholor, N’Keal Harry, Matthew Slater, and Devin Smith, along with tight end Hunter Henry. The running game will be anchored again by James White, Sony Michel, Damien Harris, and Brandon Bolden.
But, perhaps most daunting for the Bucs is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn’t lose often to quarterbacks he either drafted or started. Brady fits into both categories. For his career, Belichick is 7-2 against former quarterbacks. After the emotion of New England, Tampa Bay doesn’t go out of conference again until Week 12.
That game will also be on the road when the Bucs travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts. Indy will have a new quarterback in Carson Wentz after an offseason trade with the Eagles. The Colts hope a change of scenery and a better coaching staff will return Wentz to his MVP form when he led the Eagles through most of the regular season on a Super Bowl run. The Colts finished in the Top 10 in the NFL in points allowed and were fifth in the league in turnovers last season. But it’s the final of the four games that could be the toughest for Tampa Bay this season.
The Bucs will welcome in the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills to Raymond James Stadium on December 12. The Bills are led by MVP-hopeful quarterback Josh Allen. Last season, Allen passed his way into the conversation for being one of the best quarterbacks in the league while leading Buffalo to a 13-3 record in the regular season.
Allen powered an offense that finished second in the league in scoring, third in passing touchdowns, and in the top 10 in interceptions thrown. For the season, Allen completed 69.2 percent of his throws for 4,454 yards, 37 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a final quarterback rating of 107.2. The Bills’ defense wasn’t too shabby either finishing in the top half of the league in yards allowed, turnovers, and interceptions.