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Brady and Bucs vs. Cowboys to kick off NFL season

League tees up a slew of high-profile Week 1 matchups

Bucs and Brady vs. the Cowboys? Yeehaw!

The 2021 NFL season will kick off on the same grass turf where the 2020 season ended — at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

That’s where quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers three months ago crushed the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. And that’s where Brady and the Bucs will begin defence of their league championship on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Against the Dallas Cowboys.

This marquee matchup begins the ’21 NFL season.

The league and its teams on Wednesday morning began announcing this year’s schedule, in drips and drabs, before dates and times of all 272 regular-season games went public by 8 p.m. EDT.

For the first time in NFL history, each team will play 17 games, up one apiece. Sixteen-game seasons had been the norm since 1978.

In conjunction, the number of annual preseason games for each team will drop from four to three, starting in August.

Each team’s regular-season home and away opponents already had been known; Wednesday’s schedule release merely slotted them into dates and times.

The Cowboys expect to have their starting quarterback of the past five years, Dak Prescott, back in action. His 2020 season ended in early October, when his right ankle got mangled on an innocent-looking tackle. Seventh months later, Prescott already is throwing in careful workouts.

Brady, meantime, will be age 44 come kickoff against the Cowboys. He’ll be fresh off his seventh Super Bowl championship and fifth Super Bowl MVP award — both unmatched by any other NFL player.

No previous defending Super Bowl champion team has returned all 22 starters the following September, as the Buccaneers are projected to do. Not only that, but the Bucs return nearly all impact backup performers as well. They’ll be a strong favourite to repeat as league champ.

There had been speculation the Buccaneers would kick off the coming NFL season — as defending champs now typically do, on the Thursday night following Labour Day — against either the Cowboys or the Buffalo Bills, arguably the only two marquee matchups on Tampa Bay’s home schedule this year.

Probably it would have been the highest-profile regular-season game for the Bills since their Super Bowl years in the early 1990s. Instead, the defending AFC East champions will open the season at home three days later — on Sunday, Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. EDT — against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending AFC North champions. The Bills’ 48-year-old home has been renamed Highmark Stadium.

On Wednesday morning the NFL released all Week 1 matchups, dates and times. There are a slew of noteworthy games on Sunday, Sept. 12 and Monday, Sept. 13:

  • New York Jets at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT: New presumptive Panthers starting QB Sam Darnold faces his previous team right out of the gates.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT: New Jags head coach Urban Meyer and this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, QB Trevor Lawrence, make their NFL debuts. But will legally embattled Deshaun Watson QB the Texans?
  • San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m. EDT: Presuming Jimmy Garoppolo holds off No. 3 draft pick Trey Lance, he’ll face off gainst Detroit’s new QB starter, former Ram Jared Goff.
  • Can Kansas City’s overhauled offensive line provide better protection for Patrick Mahomes against an improved Cleveland defence?
  • Will Aaron Rodgers still be a Packer? And will it be Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston starting at QB for the Saints, now that Drew Brees has retired?
  • The first Sunday-nighter is a make-good for L.A. to show off its now year-old SoFi Stadium, for the first time with fans in the stands. But which Chicago QB will face off against new Rams starter Matthew Stafford: No. 11 draft pick Justin Fields or Andy Dalton?
  • There’s no Week 1 Monday night doubleheader this year. This one, as with the Sunday-nighter, is a marquee time slot to show off year-old Allegiant Stadium with fans in the stands for the first time.

Other schedule news learned by Wednesday afternoon, per reports:

The NFL season is 18 weeks long, not 17, as each team continues to have one bye week. The odd-number of games means that in any given year henceforth, half the teams will have nine home games and eight road games, the other half eight homes and nine road games.

The NFL in March decided to make all added games each season cross-conference. That is, AFC vs. NFC.

To start, in 2021 the 16 AFC clubs get the extra home game, and will do so in perpetuity in odd-numbered years. Similarly, the 16 NFC teams in even-numbered years, starting in 2022.

This year’s cross-divisional schedule pairings are: NFC East at AFC East, NFC West at AFC North, NFC South at AFC South, and NFC North at AFC West. First-place teams from the previous season will square off against each other, so with second-place teams, and so on.

The longer regular-season schedule necessarily pushes traditional playoff dates all forward by one week. Hence, Super Bowls now will be played on the second Sunday in February, not the first.

The 2021 regular season will conclude Sunday, Jan. 9, with the playoffs beginning Jan. 15-16 weekend and culminating with Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 13.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

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