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Projecting prime time: Which Buccaneers games will get the spotlight in 2021?

Expect to see a lot of prime time games when the schedule drops for the defending champs next week...

From the moment they signed Tom Brady last March, the Buccaneers were always going to be one of the biggest focuses of the 2020 season. That’s part of the Brady effect, right? Especially considering he was playing for a new team for the first time in 20 years, the spotlight was always going to be on him and his new teammates in Tampa.

Last May’s schedule release certainly reflected that, with the Bucs scheduled for five prime time games—one on Thursday night, two on Sunday night (though one eventually had to get moved to the afternoon) and two on Monday night—after years of getting no more than one.

Fast forward to now and look what’s happened since. Tampa Bay went 11-5 in the regular season and ran the table in the playoffs to win Super Bowl LV. In the months since their 31-9 win over the Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs have kept their entire starting offense and defense together and now they’re looking to make a run and go for two.

As if Brady being in Tampa didn’t bring enough attention last year, Brady trying to take his new team back-to-back to win his eighth ring is about to take things to another level. So, with that in mind—and because the NFL’s schedule release is set for next Wednesday (May 12)—let’s take a guess at which of Tampa Bay’s games will be scheduled for prime time this fall.

Let’s Rewind...

Before the 2020 schedule release, I went through the Bucs’ schedule and tried to project which of those games would get prime time slots. I ended up 2-for-5. That’s not terrible, I suppose, especially when you consider some of the choices that the schedule-makers made. My picks for prime time were both Saints matchups, as well as games against the Chiefs, Packers and Raiders. Of course, the home Saints game did (unfortunately) end up in prime time. And although it was on Sunday Night Football and I predicted Monday Night Football, I’m still giving myself credit. I’m also taking credit for the Raiders prediction, even though I said it would be a Monday Night Football matchup and it got scheduled for Sunday Night Football before COVID-19 precautions saw it moved up to an afternoon kickoff. I’m claiming those two as correct.

The other three were misses for me. The Bucs ended up playing the Bears on Thursday Night Football and had two Monday Night Football games against the Giants and Rams. I understand the logic behind that a bit, as the schedule-makers likely felt that the Bucs-Chiefs, Bucs-Saints and Bucs-Packers games were all going to be highly watched games anyway and wanted to get eyes on these other games in prime time. That makes enough sense. Anyway, a 2-for-5 mark doesn’t feel completely awful, I guess.

Some 2021 Housekeeping

In the past, teams were limited to five prime time games as a maximum, though a late-season flex could give some teams a sixth. With the league’s new TV deal, that maximum number is changing. As Pro Football Talk tweeted in March, the maximum is now seven games. In some ways, that rule feels like it was made for Brady and the Bucs—at least in the short term. So, as I make my predictions, I’m going to go ahead and predict that Tampa Bay gets the full seven.

Now, let’s get on with it...

New Orleans Saints (Home)

This almost feels like a shoe-in for the season opener, doesn’t it? The defending Super Bowl champs typically open the season with a home game on Thursday Night Football, and the Bucs opening against the division rival Saints just feels right—especially after the way things went down last year. Tampa Bay was supposed to overtake New Orleans for the NFC South crown after the addition of Tom Brady, only that’s not how things played out in the regular season. The Saints comfortably won both games—including a blowout in Tampa on Sunday Night Football—and went on to win the division yet again. But it was the Bucs who got the last laugh, eliminating the Saints from the playoffs in the NFC Divisional Round on their home field while sending Drew Brees into retirement in the process. For Tampa Bay, unveiling some “Super Bowl LV Champions” signage in front of its bitter rivals sounds like a great way to return to Raymond James Stadium this fall. And with Jameis Winston potentially getting a chance to play spoiler against his former team, there are plenty of storylines to pick from here.

My Prediction: Thursday Night Football (NFL Kickoff Game)

New England Patriots (Away)

As soon as Tom Brady left New England to join Tampa Bay last spring, many were quick to point out that he would return to Gillette Stadium as a visitor for the first time in the 2021 season. So, how could this not be a prime time matchup? Brady and the Bucs taking on Belichick and the Patriots sells itself, plus there’s now the added wrinkle of Mac Jones. New England’s No. 15 overall pick in last weekend’s NFL Draft is being talked about as Brady’s replacement. Cam Newton may start the year under center for the Patriots, but it’s only a matter of time before Jones takes the reins. The league may want this game later in the season to give some breathing room so that a Brady vs. Jones matchup is more likely. Nonetheless, this is a marquee game if there ever was one. Now, where to place it? This is where things become more difficult. It could very well be a Monday Night Football game, but it feels more like a game that will get the Carrie Underwood intro treatment.

My Prediction: Sunday Night Football

Buffalo Bills (Home)

Honestly, outside of the Saints and Patriots games, it feels like a lot of guesswork needs to take place the rest of the way. There are plenty of strong opponents on the slate for Tampa Bay, but we saw last year that the more obvious prime time candidates may fall into the late-Sunday afternoon kickoff rather than a traditional prime time slot. Nonetheless, the Bills feel like a prime time opponent. AFC runner-ups from a year ago, they’re sure to be a threat in the league again this fall. So, Josh Allen leading Buffalo into Tampa to take on the Super Bowl champions feels like a game that warrants the bright lights. There’s plenty of offensive firepower between the two teams, though both have strong defenses as well. It’s truly a fascinating matchup, one that may yield a phenomenal game that will be fun for neutral fans to tune in for.

My Prediction: Monday Night Football

New York Jets (Away)

Coming out of draft weekend, there’s a lot of excitement around the Jets, thanks to what looks like a really solid class of rookies. No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson will definitely have plenty of eyes on him in his rookie season. And for some reason, this seems like the type of matchup the league would love for a Thursday night. The established veteran leading the reigning champions into the home of New York’s newest young star—that might attract some eyes. In some ways, it feels like a different version of the NFL scheduling the Bucs and Giants for prime time last year. Not to mention, there’s the added storyline of Brady being 29-7 against the Jets in his regular season career. It may not scream “marquee” and it may not be a great game, but when do we ever get great Thursday night games?

My Prediction: Thursday Night Football

Dallas Cowboys (Home)

All signs point to the Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team” (just threw up a little), being back on track in 2021. Dak Prescott will be back to lead an offense that could be very, very scary if the offensive line holds up. With Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb complemented by what should be a revamped defense, Dallas will be a threat to win the NFC East. So, just think about it: A good Cowboys team plus Tom Brady? That’s a combination that should draw a lot of eyes. And with as much money involved as there is with these—and future—TV deals, ratings are king, right? Well, the ratings for this one would surely please the suits. Plus, if things break right, this could be a game between two of the NFC’s top teams. Scheduling this one for later in the season might even bring some playoff implications into the picture.

My Prediction: Sunday Night Football

Washington Football Team (Away)

The Washington Football Team was the first team the Bucs got rid of on their way to Super Bowl LV. It was actually a pretty entertaining game for a 7-9 division winner hosting a team that was entering its hottest stretch of the year. So, why not pit the two teams against each other for a rematch in prime time this season? The quarterback matchup would be intriguing, as Brady would be opposed by either journeyman and former Buc Ryan Fitzpatrick or Taylor Heinicke, who almost single-handedly kept Washington around in the NFC Wild Card Game. Plus, there’s the small fact that Chase Young called Brady out ahead of that playoff game and everyone took that and ran with it. I can already see ESPN running that clip three or four times during the broadcast.

My Prediction: Monday Night Football

Atlanta Falcons (Home)

There’s not a lot of confidence behind this one, but there’s a feeling. The Bucs and Falcons feel like they’re in two very different places right now despite being on a very similar level during the last game of the 2019 season. A lot changed in 2020. Brady came in and so did a host of other stars, taking the Bucs to new heights. The Falcons struggled out of the gate, fired their head coach, and never recovered. So, why prime time for these two in 2021? I just have a feeling that this could be a game for Thanksgiving night. Of course, the Lions are locked into their early-afternoon game, while the Cowboys get the afternoon slot. It’s the Thanksgiving night slot that the NFL sometimes likes to fill with two division rivals, and this feels like a game that could get that treatment. A Bucs-Saints contest on Turkey Day would be intriguing too, but something tells me the league would prefer for its Super Bowl winners to have a home game on the holiday. And in keeping with my earlier prediction, the Bucs’ home matchup with the Saints is already locked into opening night. So, Bucs-Falcons for Tampa Bay’s first Thanksgiving game since 2006 it is.

My Prediction: Thursday Night Football (Thanksgiving)

OK, Bucs Nation. It’s your turn. Which games do you see getting prime time slots this fall? Let us know what you thinkin the comments down below.

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