The 2021 NFL season is finally here!
The regular season kicks off Thursday as the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers play host to the Dallas Cowboys. The game will mark Dak Prescott’s much-anticipated return from a compound fracture and dislocated ankle last October. Prescott and the Cowboys’ promising offense – which is set to be without all-pro guard Zack Martin – will have a tough test out of the gates against a Buccaneers defense that surged during its Super Bowl run last season.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady will be making his record 300th career regular-season start against a Dallas defense looking to find its footing under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Stay here for updates from USA TODAY Sports, including Jori Epstein and Jarrett Bell on the scene in Tampa, throughout the action.
FINAL: Buccaneers 31, Cowboys 29
How about that for a season opener? Dak Prescott was in top form in his return from injury, throwing for 403 yards and three touchdowns on 42-of-48 passing. But Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers had a bit more in the end, securing the win to launch their Super Bowl title defense. Clearly a very good showing for a Cowboys team that was trying to establish its credentials as a contender, but this is the kind of moral victory that Dallas has too often had to settle for in recent years. Brady, meanwhile, was his masterful self as he threw for 379 yards and four touchdowns.
Score: Buccaneers 31, Cowboys 29 0:02 fourth quarter
What a response. A false start robbed the Buccaneers of their final time out, but then Rob Gronkowski bulldozed defenders for a 20-yard gain, and then Tom Brady connected with Chris Godwin on a back-shoulder throw for 24 yards to the Cowboys’ 18-yard line. Ryan Succop then converted the 36-yard field goal for the lead.
Score: Cowboys 29, Buccaneers 28 1:24 fourth quarter
For the first time tonight, the Cowboys are in the lead. Dak Prescott led Dallas downfield with a 31-yard connection to CeeDee Lamb, but a third-down penalty on Connor Williams threatened to push the Cowboys out of field goal range. Greg Zuerlein, however, converted a critical 48-yard field goal for the lead.
Score: Buccaneers 28, Cowboys 26, 4:52 fourth quarter
Just as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers looked ready to shut the door, Chris Godwin gave the Cowboys an opening. Godwin fumbled as he tried to spin his way toward the end zone, with Cowboys defensive back Damontae Kazee forcing the turnover. Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense start deep in their own territory but have the chance to take the lead.
Score: Buccaneers 28, Cowboys 26 0:33 third quarter
Don’t count Dallas out just yet. Amari Cooper had Ross Cockrell beat almost as soon as the play began, and he cooked the fill-in nickel corner for a 21-yard touchdown, with a nice delivery from Dak Prescott. The Cowboys have outgained the Bucs (363 yards to 280) and have doubled Tampa Bay’s time of possession but haven’t been able to convert many of their opportunities.
Score: Buccaneers 28, Cowboys 19 6:23 third quarter
The interception will be credited to Dak Prescott, but CeeDee Lamb was the party at fault, as he was unable to catch a solid pass in traffic that then ended up in the hands of Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis. Tom Brady then connects with Rob Gronkowski twice on the ensuing drive, including an 11-yard scoring strike up the middle that left DeMarcus Lawrence trying to play catch up in a Cover Zero blitz.
Score: Buccaneers 21, Cowboys 19 9:15 third quarter
Dak Prescott helps lead the Cowboys downfield on a 13-play, 72-yard drive that stalls out in the red zone when Ezekiel Elliott is tackled for a 1-yard loss on third down from the 2-yard line. Dallas is putting this game squarely on Prescott’s shoulders, asking him to work the Buccaneers’ secondary and hold up just long enough against a vaunted pass rush. Prescott is up to 41 pass attempts with a good chance to break his career high of 58. Zuerlein hits a 21-yard field goal to cut the deficit.
Even though they’re only trailing by five and get the ball in the second half, the Cowboys sure look to be in a tough spot. They were gifted two turnovers deep in Bucs territory and otherwise haven’t done much to stop Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. They might need some other lucky breaks in the second half to catch up.
So much for Dak Prescott’s shoulder fatigue. The Cowboys QB has attempted 32 passes in one half of action, and Dallas has only run the ball seven times, including two scrambles by Prescott. It doesn’t seem like the balance will shift dramatically in the second half, either.
There’s good reason for offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and the Cowboys to keep up the aerial assault, though. With cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting out, the Buccaneers’ secondary is stretched fairly thin against the Cowboys’ receiving corps. Prescott can look for favorable matchups on Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup or CeeDee Lamb on any given play.
The Buccaneers, though, have already uncovered perhaps the biggest mismatch of the game. Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown was roasted by Antonio Brown for a 47-yard touchdown and has given up 5 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown on the five targets when he was the nearest defender in coverage, according to Next Gen Stats. With second-rounder Kelvin Joseph on injured reserve, the Cowboys are still languishing at cornerback with many of the issues that have plagued them in recent years.
Score: Buccaneers 21, Cowboys 16 HALFTIME
Tampa Bay hadn’t recorded a sack until that drive, but the Buccaneers finally broke through with a sack by Shaquil Barrett. A holding penalty and 1-yard scramble on Prescott on third down left Greg Zuerlein to attempt a 60-yard field goal that came up short. Tom Brady’s subsequent Hail Mary attempt is intercepted by Jourdan Lewis, who returns it past midfield but is taken down by offensive guard Ali Marpet.
Score: Buccaneers 21, Cowboys 16 2:38 second quarter
So if the Bucs running backs are slipping up, maybe it’s time to go to one of the wide receivers. Antonio Brown roasts Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown deep for a 47-yard scoring strike. Tom Brady is up to 213 yards and three touchdowns … before halftime.
Score: Cowboys 16, Buccaneers 14 3:21 second quarter
Another big error by a Buccaneers back, as Leonard Fournette allows a pass to bounce off his hands and into the arms of Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs for an interception. Dak Prescott can’t get Dallas into the end zone after his third-down pass is deflected by Lavonte David on what might otherwise have been an interception by Mike Edwards. But Zuerlein finds some redemption as he converts a 35-yard field goal.
Score: Buccaneers 14, Cowboys 13 4:20 second quarter
After their own slip-up, the Cowboys get a big boost thanks to a mistake by the Buccaneers – Ronald Jones’ fumble, which was forced by DeMarcus Lawrence and recovered by Randy Gregory. Five plays and 27 yards later, Dak Prescott recovers from a bad snap and finds Amari Cooper in the end zone for the score. But Greg Zuerlein misses the extra point that would have tied the game.
Score: Buccaneers 14, Cowboys 7 6:36 second quarter
A promising drive unraveled for the Cowboys in a hurry. After Dak Prescott nearly threw an interception to Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis in the end zone, Greg Zeurlein hooked a 31-yard field goal attempt wide left. Not the kind of mistakes the Cowboys can afford, especially with Brady and the Bucs passing attack clicking.
Score: Buccaneers 14, Cowboys 7 9:48 second quarter
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are at it again. The two connect for their 85th regular-season touchdown, tying Steve Young and Jerry Rice for the third-most of any duo in NFL history. Brady is now 11-of-15 for 156 yards and two touchdowns. And remember when you heard this offseason about the NFL making taunting penalties a point of emphasis? One got called on Bucs center Ryan Jensen after Cowboys defensive tackle Carlos Watkins earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a shove.
Score: Cowboys 7, Buccaneers 7 1:35 first quarter
Welcome back, Dak Prescott. The Cowboys QB led a seven-play, 75-yard drive to even the score late in the first. Prescott found Michael Gallup three times on the series, but CeeDee Lamb made up for his earlier drop by faking a screen and dashing past Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting for a 22-yard scoring strike. Murphy-Bunting was hurt on the play and later ruled out for the remainder of
Score: Buccaneers 7, Cowboys 0 5:23 first quarter
Tom Brady and his receiving corps didn’t take long to kick off the rust. Brady led the Bucs on a nine-play, 94-yard touchdown drive capped by a 5-yard strike to Chris Godwin over the middle. Brady also showed off his connection with Antonio Brown, who hauled in a 28-yard over-the-shoulder grab on a sluggo route. Brady went 6-of-7 for 86 yards on the drive, hitting four different receivers. And just like that, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys find themselves in an early hole again.
Score: Cowboys 0, Buccaneers 0 9:32 first quarter
Nice start for Dak Prescott, who finds a wide-open Amari Cooper down the left sideline for an easy 28-yard gain on the quarterback’s first play from scrimmage since last year’s compound fracture and ankle dislocation. But the drive stalls in part due to a CeeDee Lamb drop and a false start on “the entire offensive line,” as the officials called it. Prescott then threw an incompletion on third-and-15 as Lavonte David barreled down on A-gap blitz.
Score: Cowboys 0, Buccaneers 0 13:18 first quarter
An early win for Dan Quinn and the Cowboys defense, which forced Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to a three-and-out on the first series. Tampa Bay wanted to test out Dallas’ run defense, which ranked 31st last year, on first and second down, but Brady couldn’t connect with Chris Godwin on third down. Bradley Pinion then pinned the Cowboys inside their 5-yard line.
The Cowboys’ inactives for Thursday night are: safeties Malik Hooker and Israel Mukuamu, quarterback Will Grier, defensive ends Azur Kamara and Chauncey Golston, linebacker Luke Gifford and wide receiver Noah Brown.
The Buccaneers’ inactives are: quarterback Kyle Trask, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Jaelon Darden, offensive guard Nick Leverett, defensive lineman Khalil Davis and safeties Jordan Whitehead and Chris Cooper.
Cowboys-Buccaneers injury report
The Cowboys looked to be in good shape this week, with all of the players on their injury report listed as full participants by Wednesday. Starting right guard Zack Martin, however, figures to be out after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will be without starting safety Jordan Whitehead as he continues to recover from a hamstring ailment.
Get set for Thursday night’s matchup with some of our best recent stories on the Bucs-Cowboys tilt as well as predictions for the upcoming season.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys vs. Buccaneers score updates, live analysis of NFL opener