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It’s here! It’s finally here. The 2021 NFL season has officially begun with an epic battle between the defending Super Bowl Champions in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys.
Thursday night games carry a reputation of being just plain weird and Week 1 matchups aren’t much different. This game, however, was anything but strange. In fact, it didn’t even look like the first game of the season and it also didn’t look like the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys missed nearly an entire season with a gruesome ankle injury or that he was nursing a shoulder strain merely weeks earlier.
The game was a high-scoring affair that was back and forth between both offenses with an impressive showing from both defenses. It’s hard to ask for much more in a football game, let alone the season opener.
It was also a refreshing sight to see so many fans in the stands to celebrate the return of the NFL season and it was a welcome feeling to be immersed in the highs and lows of fantasy football once again.
Buccaneers Pull Out a Win
This would have been a joke seeing the Dallas Cowboys against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020 given the state of both teams' seasons. This game, however, was no laughing matter. Despite question marks surrounding QB Dak Prescott’s health and mental focus in the wake of his injury and the horrific finish for the Cowboys' defense, they gave the reigning Super Bowl champs a run for their money.
Prescott led the Cowboys on a drive that ended with a touchdown to WR Amari Cooper that brought Dallas within two points at 26-28 to start the fourth quarter. The score would remain stagnant despite back-and-forth action until the very end of the fourth quarter when the Cowboys took a 29-28 lead after a 48-yard field goal.
Bucs QB Tom Brady took over possession with 1:18 left on the clock and drove down the field to get in position for the game-winning field goal by Ryan Succop.
Throughout the game, Brady did as Brady does and targeted the plethora of talent around him. TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Chris Godwin both had eight and nine receptions respectively and Gronkowski hauled in two touchdowns to Godwin’s one. Antonio Brown had the most yards with 121 and a touchdown and RB Leonard Fournette had five receptions on seven targets for 27 yards.
Unfortunately, the running back room didn’t give us more clarity between Ronald Jones and Fournette. Despite Jones being listed first on the depth chart, his turnover during the game proved to be kryptonite. It was the Fournette show after that who totaled nine carries for 32 yards to Jones’ four carries for 14 yards.
Strong Showing From Cowboys Offense
One of the main talking points heading into Thursday night’s game was whether Prescott could bounce back both physically and mentally and how long it would take.
It certainly didn’t take long.
There were some shaky throws at the very beginning, but that should be attributed to adrenaline more than anything else. Prescott finished with 42 completions on 58 attempts for 403 yards, three touchdowns, and only one interception. He made sure to spread out his targets among WRs Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, and also targeted TE Dalton Schultz. Schultz could be an intriguing streaming option in future matchups if he continues to nurture his connection with Prescott.
There was also a very interesting distribution of touches between both RBs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Elliott had a total of 13 touches (11 rush attempts and two receptions and 39 yards) and Pollard logged a total of six (two carries and four receptions for 32 yards). Both Elliott and fantasy managers of Elliott are hoping for a bounce-back season after a disappointing 2020 finish.
Whether this kind of run game will be the norm throughout the league in an extended season is something to keep an eye on this weekend. Keeping the starting, bell-cow running backs healthy all season should be a priority, which means opportunities for RB2 and RB3s to see more action. This is great for real football, but not so great for fantasy.
If anyone on the Cowboys showed any signs of being overwhelmed, it was Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein. The kicker uncharacteristically missed two field goals and an extra point early in the game. He did manage to put three other field goals through the uprights (including a 48 yarder) and made two other extra points to redeem himself.
Dallas Defense Makes a Statement
The Cowboys are putting the right foot forward to erase the horrendous showing from their defense in 2020. They finished the season 27th in touchdowns allowed, 23rd in interceptions, 31st in rush attempts and rushing yards allowed, 30th in yards per attempt, and 25th in average points scored per drive.
Instead of continuing the downward spiral, the Dallas defense opened their season with two interceptions on the G.O.A.T himself and forcing two turnovers. Despite not logging a sack, they still managed to get in Brady’s face enough to get him flustered in the second half. Even though it wasn’t enough to pull out a victory, it was still a big improvement from last year.
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RB Carousel Continues for the Ravens
The injury bug struck again in Baltimore. After both J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill suffered season-ending injuries, Gus Edwards is the latest running back to go down for the Ravens with a torn ACL. Star cornerback Marcus Peters also tore his ACL, which does no favors for their vaunted defense.
The Ravens wasted no time signing Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and most recently Latavius Murray who was cut from the Saints. RB Ty’son Williams is considered the starting running back in Baltimore, but this is a run-first and run-heavy offense and we are likely to see a cavalcade of backs throughout the season.
Injury News/Quick Hits
Cowboys WR Michael Gallup left the game early with an ankle injury … Chargers RB Austin Ekeler was sidelined again during Thursday’s practice with a lingering hamstring issue. … The Steelers signed TJ Watt to an extension that is expected to total $112 million over four years. … Saints WR Tre’Quan Smith was not at practice on Thursday. … Lions RB D’Andre Swift is said to have no workload limit in Week 1. … Giants TE Evan Engram did not practice on Thursday with a calf injury.