Football Is Back – 2021 NFL Kickoff Game Preview

The NFL season is upon us once again as Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers welcome a returning Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys to Raymond James Stadium on Thursday Night Football.

(+310) Dallas Cowboys @ (-400) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8.5, O/U 51.5)

The Bucs are heading into the season opener with a fat spread in their favor as 8.5-point favorites and the oddsmakers have them as just about 3.5/1 favorites on an uninviting money line. However, there are plenty of reasons to think they can cover the spread at home.

They’ve still got Tom Brady at the helm and the offense (that found its stride late last season) has a full training camp under their belts this time around. Besides the fact that they returned all their starters from their championship team last season, their one major injury concern was cleared up after practice Wednesday when slot receiver Chris Godwin was taken off the official injury report. Their defense was among the league’s elite in 2020, ranking 1st against the run while being Top-5 in sacks, QB hits, and tackles for loss. None of that bodes well for a Dallas offense that’s just trying to get things back in working order. 

Zack Martin’s potential absence is going to be a major problem upfront

This is going to be an uphill battle for the Boys for a number of reasons. Starting right guard and one of the best offensive linemen in the league Zack Martin is currently in Covid protocols and likely to miss Thursday night’s game. That’s not the only concern along the offensive line either. Left guard Connor Williams is the only member of the O-line to start all 16-games last season and he’s just coming back from the Covid-list. Right tackle La’el Collins has been dealing neck stingers since the beginning of August, so it’s fair to question whether he’s at 100%. We saw what the Bucs’ defensive front did to a depleted Chiefs’ O-line in the Super Bowl, so there’s a legitimate reason for the Cowboys to be concerned. 

We won’t’ know if Prescott is truly ready until he’s out there

Beyond winning and losing, a large part of the organization’s concern has to be focused on Dak Prescott returning from a gruesome leg injury. It took Alex Smith three years to take a game-time snap after a very similar injury, and while the situations aren’t identical, it won’t even be a full year since Dak’s injury and he’s stepping in against a defense that absolutely battered QBs down the stretch. I am glad Dak is able to play again but, if I were part of the Dallas front office, I wouldn’t be too keen on this matchup. Even if his leg is fully healed, that kind of injury comes with ghosts and the Tampa Bay pass rush isn’t going to give Dak time to reacclimate himself. 

The nearest I can tell, Cowboys fans are either supremely confident or delusional when it comes to this matchup. A win isn’t impossible, but their path to victory is extremely narrow. The emergence of a dynamic receiver group has been a big plus for Dallas and they can make plays against the Tampa secondary…if the line can hold up long enough for Dak to make the throws. The Boys’ defense will still have to contend with a formidable Bucs’ offense. Supposedly, they’ve made a big leap from last season but I haven’t seen the kind of offseason improvements to think it’ll be a problem for Tom Brady. 

It’s a make-or-break year for head coach Mike McCarthy

This may be anecdotal, but the teams featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks haven’t had the best of luck and Dallas was just featured for the third time. They didn’t make the playoffs after either of their previous seasons on the show in 2002 or 2008. Their head coach, Mike McCarthy, has been under fire for his lack of authenticity during the program which raises questions about his leadership. I don’t think he’s a particularly good head coach, despite his record. His career is defined more by his post-season shortcomings during the Favre/Rodgers era in Green Bay than it is by the lone Super Bowl victory. When Prescott went down last year, we saw the Cowboys fail to win the NFC East where the first place team was 7-9. McCarthy has had a losing record in each of his last three seasons and you can bet his job hangs in the balance for a team that had Super Bowl aspirations heading into last season. 

Dallas has to prevent this from happening

Perhaps I’m reading too much in it, but Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones even referred to his team as David to the Bucs’ Goliath. I could be wrong. Maybe the Bucs have been basking in their success and are overlooking the Cowboys as well. Effort goes a long way on the field and the games aren’t played on paper. So, if you’re going to bet on the Cowboys, at least you’re getting your money’s worth at +310. 

Pick: Bucs 

Vs Spread: Bucs -8.5

Over/Under: Under 51.5

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