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TAMPA — The stat sheet insists the Tampa Bay Buccaneers failed in this season’s first regular-season game and their first game as defending Super Bowl champions because they lost the turnover battle, lost the time of possession battle, had fewer first downs than the Dallas Cowboys, had 106 yards in penalties, and yielded 403 passing yards to Dak Prescott.
Not your classic formula for NFL success.
Our eyes, bleary from the smoky pre-game fireworks and tired as midnight approached, also confirmed the Buccaneers looked like losers with 1:24 left to play and trailing 29-28.
But mired in those ugly numbers and against all visual evidence, everybody on that Tampa Bay sideline expected to come out of this nationally televised 2021 season kickoff game the same way they ended the 2020 season’s final game in Super Bowl LV.
“There was no doubt that we were going to win the game,” coach Bruce Arians said early Friday morning, which is when he finally came out of the Tampa locker room filled with undefeated but unsatisfied players.
Tampa Bay 31.
A new season but the same Tom Brady. And the same Buccaneers.
“Obviously, not pleased with the start of the game,” Arians added. “Loved the finish. Our guys are winners. They’re going to finish and they’re going to win. But they can play better and not put ourselves in that situation.”
Allow me to skip the full-on recounting of “that situation” and get to the place in this column where we learn what this one game can mean for this entire season:
It means you got a problem, rest of the NFL.
It means the Bucs are so good they can play like manure at times. They can spend much of a game’s second half punting or even fumbling when they’re seemingly going in for a score. They can be down two starting defensive backs and have their secondary torched by a hot quarterback.
And still they leave their sellout crowd of 65,566 both winded from the excitement and pleased with the result.
“It’s a great way to start off the year,” Antonio Brown said. “You know, battling adversity, having some adversity and being able to rally back to win, those are signs of a championship team and a good group of guys. So it’s a great day today.”
It’s got to be a depressing day for other teams, when you think of it.
The NFL is about constant change. An average of four new teams have made the playoffs every year for the past two decades.
But the counter to all that change has usually been Brady. And this year it looks like it’s Tom Brady and his Bucs.
Brady is 44 years old now. But in the pocket he dances like a 25-year-old, which is one reason he wasn’t sacked this game. He still has plenty of arm strength, as that 60-yard Hail Mary heave before halftime showed.
And unlike the season-opener last year, when the Buccaneers lost to the New Orleans Saints, Brady simply didn’t perform to his age this night.
“Well, last year sucked after the first game — let me say that,” Brady said through a smile. “We’ve come along way from 365 days ago. That was a pretty lonely feeling after the game there in the Superdome. But again, we won tonight. It was great. But we know it was far from perfect and we’ve got to get back and clean a lot of stuff up.”
The Bucs probably are going to clean up some issues. They’re likely going to improve.
That’s when their title defense might start to look more like another another title chase. And Brady’s 22nd professional season might look like he’s not yet done collecting Super Bowl rings.
Tell me I’m wrong.
The Cowboys left the door to victory ajar by giving Brady 1:24 to mount a comeback, and he burst through as if invited. The entire Earth, having seen the movie before, expected Brady to author his 40th fourth-quarter comeback win Thursday night.
And he did.
We knew that 20-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski was coming. We knew that 24-yard back-shoulder completion to Chris Godwin was on the way.
And no one was surprised when Godwin seemed to push off and the official looking straight at the play kept the penalty flag in his pocket. Because Brady’s teams, be they in the northeast or the deep south, don’t have to fear that call going against them in the final seconds of a game.
“Oh, no,” Godwin said. “No, no. I wasn’t worried about offensive pass interference.”
The Cowboys outgained the Buccaneers, 451 yards to 431 yards. The Cowboys had a whopping 30 first downs to Tampa Bay’s 24. But despite being the second-best offense on the field much of the night, Tampa Bay also enjoyed great moments of clarity.
In his 300th career start, Brady completed 32-of-50 passes for 379 yards and four touchdowns. He threw three-plus touchdowns in a game for the 94th time in his NFL career, surpassing Peyton Manning for the second-most such games in NFL history.
That kind of performance makes beneficiaries out of Brady’s receivers and so it was this game:
Godwin had nine catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Brown had five catches for 121 yards and a touchdown.
And Gronkowski caught all eight passes thrown his way for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
With this many options, Brady can afford to be the game’s second-best quarterback for 58 minutes and 36 seconds and still come out the winner.
Prescott, playing for the first time in 11 months, can complete an incredible 42 of 58 passes, or 72.4 percent of his throws, and still wind up as that other quarterback NBC didn’t interview afterward.
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy, the author of multiple questionable decisions, offered his players a poor loser’s lament following this disappointment, saying the outcome merely meant they wouldn’t be undefeated this season.
Great, Mike. You wasted Aaron Rodgers and this night you wasted a Prescott masterpiece.
Speaking of work worthy of the Louvre, you must recall Gronkowski’s second touchdown catch, an 11-yarder that Brady delivered against what looked like a zero blitz that left no safety in the deep middle of the field.
Brady apparently didn’t just read the Dallas defense once pre-snap but three different times.
“Yeah, I know, I don’t want to give away that play, that’s my favorite play,” Gronkowski said. “Tom made a great call. I was actually (supposed to be) on a route, and then he checked me into blocking, and then he checked me into blocking and releasing.”
The ball was snapped. The Cowboys blitzed. Gronkowski blocked, then released and found no one in the middle of the field to stop him after he caught Brady’s pass in stride.
“I was like, oh man, he just sees it all on the field,” Gronkowski said. “It’s impressive, I mean, the guy’s been playing for like 80 years. He’s seen every defense, and so many players and so many fronts, too.
“He saw it, he read it well. It’s a play we’ve scored a couple of touchdowns on in our careers. But no more talking about that play because I don’t want to give it away.”
You’re not giving anything away, Gronk. It’s a new season, but Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have shown us this before.