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Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys recap: Defending champs escape with thrilling 31-29 win in opener

Tampa Bay played a mess of a game, but it escaped with a 31-29 win over Dallas thanks to Ryan Succop’s game-winning 36-yard field goal.

Dallas Cowboys v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

At long last, the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers returned to Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night to host the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL’s regular season opener.

Tampa Bay came into the new season riding an eight-game winning streak and, after returning its entire starting lineup from Super Bowl LV, have been tabbed as favorites to go the distance and win its second consecutive Lombardi Trophy. Not to mention, Bucs fans were back in full force at Ray Jay on Thursday night after capacity restrictions in 2020 cost them a chance to create much of a home-field advantage for their team.

The Cowboys came into Thursday night on a bit of a high themselves, as they took the field with Dak Prescott as their quarterback for the first time since October of last year. Prescott, the 2016 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and two-time Pro Bowl selection, was playing his first game after recovering from a broken ankle as well as a shoulder injury. On the down side for Dallas, All-Pro guard Zack Martin had to sit this one out after being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week.

While a now-healthy Prescott was reuniting with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup on a talented offense, not many gave Dallas much of a chance in this one, due in large part to the fact that its defense is in something of a rebuilding phase. The Bucs came in as nine-point favorites on their home field, with ESPN’s matchup predictor giving them a 70% chance to start the season with a victory.

The Bucs weren’t at their best and the Cowboys certainly were, but it was the defending champions coming away with a 31-29 victory. Dallas took a late lead with 1:24 to go, but that was too much time for Brady and the offense, which drove down and set Ryan Succop for a game-winning 36-yard field goal with two seconds left.

Game Recap

It was quite the scene at Raymond James Stadium leading up to kickoff, as it was one final chance to celebrate the Bucs’ Super Bowl LV triumph on the very same field seven months ago. Once the championship signage was unveiled and the National Anthem was sung, we got the new season underway with Dallas winning the coin toss and deferring. That meant Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense would get the first shot of the 2021 NFL season.

After a touchback on the opening kickoff, the Buccaneer offense took the field to start its opening drive from the 25-yard line. Leonard Fournette got back-to-back carries to start the drive, picking up five and three yards to set up an early 3rd & 2. But on third down, Brady missed Chris Godwin over the middle to bring Bradley Pinion out for his first punt of the year and it was an absolute beauty. He boomed it 65 yards to the Dallas 2-yard line, backing Dak Prescott and the Cowboy offense up to start.

Prescott was unphased by the bad field position, finding Amari Cooper for 28 yards on first down to the 30. Ezekiel Elliott then got in on the action with a couple of runs and another completed pass getting the Cowboys another first down. A 16-yard pass from Prescott to Dalton Schultz got the ball into Buccaneer territory before the drive finally stalled. Prescott threw short on first down, CeeDee Lamb dropped a second-down pass and then Prescott missed again on third down after a false start. Lavonte David got pressure on the third-down play, which led to a punt for the Cowboys. Former Buc Bryan Anger delivered a good punt of his own, pinning Tampa Bay at its own 6.

On the Bucs’ second drive, Ronald Jones II got his first snaps of the year. He took his first-down carry for five yards to the 11-yard line, giving the offense a little more breathing room. Brady then picked up his first completion of the year, finding Mike Evans for 10 yards to the 21. He missed Evans on the next play, but connected with noted blocking tight end Rob Gronkowski for 19 yards on a beautiful throw to the 40-yard line.

The air attack continued from there, with Brady finding Antonio Brown for 28 and 16 yards on back-to-back plays, getting inside the red zone. After a short run by Fournette, Brady got the Bucs inside the 10 with an eight-yard pass to Chris Godwin. And on the very next play, Brady found Godwin again for a five-yard touchdown. Ryan Succop came on and nailed the extra point, and just like that, it was 7-0 Tampa Bay with 5:28 left in the first quarter after a nine-play, 94-yard drive that lasted 4:09.

The Cowboys got a couple of quick hitters to start their next drive, with Prescott connecting with Tony Pollard and Michael Gallup on back-to-back screens. A 12-yard pass to Gallup got the ball across midfield, then Pollard gained another seven to Tampa Bay’s 37. Completions to Gallup and Blake Jarwin got Dallas to the Bucs’ 22, then on the next play, Prescott found Lamb for a 22-yard touchdown. Of more concern for Tampa Bay was the fact that Sean Murphy-Bunting went down and stayed down after the play before heading straight to the locker room with an apparent shoulder injury. He would not return to the game.

After Murphy-Bunting got helped off, Greg Zuerlein hit the PAT to make it a 7-7 game with 1:35 to go in the first quarter. It was a quick seven-play, 75-yard drive, with all seven plays being passes.

Jones picked up a quick three yards on first down to start Tampa Bay’s next drive before Brady went back to the air, finding Brown for 27 more yards to the Dallas 45. A five-yard run by Jones and an incomplete pass set up a 3rd & 5 across midfield, but Brown dropped a pass to bring up fourth down and end the first quarter.

Pinion started the second quarter with another beauty of a punt that was again downed at the 2, but holding on Patrick O’Connor brought things back for a re-kick. On the re-kick, Dallas got called for holding around the 10-yard line, which pushed the drive’s starting point back to the 5 after all of that. Lavonte David sniffed out a short pass on first down before a quick five-yard pass brought up a 3rd & 3 at the 12-yard line.

Ndamukong Suh stuffed Pollard for no gain on third down, bringing Anger out for his second punt of the game. A delay of game backed Anger up to his own end zone and Mickens returned the kick to the Dallas 30, but holding on Andrew Adams backed up Tampa Bay’s starting point as well. Nonetheless, they got to start at midfield.

Fournette got back in the game and picked up two yards on first down to start the drive, then Brady found Gronkowski for a five-yard gain to bring up another short third-down try—a 3rd & 3. Tampa Bay converted it with a beauty of a play call, with Godwin getting wide open for a 19-yard gain to the 24. Godwin got another look on the next play, getting 17 more to the 7-yard line. And on the Bucs’ second trip to the red zone, they got their second touchdown. After a tough five-yard run by Fournette, Brady found Gronkowski for a two-yard score. With Succop’s extra point, Tampa Bay was back on top, 14-7, after a six-play, 50-yard drive that lasted 2:53.

Prescott found Lamb for 22 yards to get the Cowboys near midfield on the first play of the next drive, then Carlton Davis got called for his first pass interference penalty of the season to give Dallas possession at the Bucs’ 39. A couple of completions and a defensive holding got the Cowboys to the Bucs’ 20, but the Tampa Bay defense stood tall from there, with Carlton Davis just missing an interception on third down. Zuerlein came on for a 31-yard field goal attempt to bring the game within 14-10, but he missed badly to keep the Bucs’ lead at 14-7 with 6:36 left in the first half.

The Bucs took over at their own 21 with a chance to add to their lead, but instead, they gave the ball right back to Dallas. Demarcus Lawrence punched the ball loose from Jones and Randy Gregory recovered it at the 27 to send Tampa Bay’s tired defense right back onto the field.

After the turnover, Dallas quickly faced a 3rd & 8, but Prescott converted it with a 13-yard pass to Cedrick Wilson. Prescott then took off for a gain of seven on the next play, bringing up a 2nd & 3 at the Tampa Bay 5. He fumbled the snap on the next play, but managed to recover it with enough time to find Cooper for a touchdown. Zuerlein, who had just missed a 31-yard field goal a few minutes earlier, came on and hit the upright with his extra point attempt, keeping the Bucs in front by a score of 14-13 with 4:20 to go in the second quarter.

Things went from bad to worse for the Bucs on the very first play of their next drive, as Brady tried to find Fournette on a screen and instead the pass went directly off of the running back’s hands and fell into the arms of Trevon Diggs. Just like that, it was Dallas’ ball again with a chance to take the lead and potentially double up after halftime.

Thankfully for the offense’s sake, Tampa Bay’s defense stepped up and got a three-and-out, forcing a Zuerlein field goal try after a pass breakup by David. This time, the struggling kicker made a 35-yarder to give the Cowboys a 16-14 lead off the back of yet another blunder by a Buccaneer running back.

Jaydon Mickens returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards to the 43, which got a little bit of the Bucs’ momentum back after two straight turnovers and nine points scored by the Cowboys. Brady connected with Godwin for 10 yards on first down, then the Bucs got allllll of the momentum back as Brady hit a wide-open Brown for a 47-yard touchdown. With Succop’s successful PAT, it was a 21-16 lead for the home team with 2:38 to go in the first half.

The Cowboys got moving with just under three minutes left in the first half, with an 11-yard pass to Cooper. Then, after the two-minute warning, Dallas seemed to get a bit of a gift as officials called both pass interference and a facemask—a questionable one, at that—on the same play to give the offense 28 free yards. A seven-yard pass was followed up by an incompletion—with Dean in coverage—to bring up a 3rd & 3. Dallas converted, with Prescott finding Lamb for 10 yards to the Tampa Bay 21. After an incompletion, the Bucs finally got to the quarterback. Shaquil Barrett dropped Prescott for a loss of 12, setting up a 3rd & 22.

On the next play, Prescott scrambled forward and got tripped up by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, but holding on the Cowboys backed them up to a 3rd & 32 well outside of field goal range. Barrett stopped Prescott for a gain of one on the next play, which brought Zuerlein out for a 60-yard field goal attempt. It was a questionable call, as he missed wide left and set the Bucs up at midfield with 15 seconds left in the half.

After a couple of incompletions, Brady had a Hail Mary picked off in the end zone and returned near midfield before Ali Marpet came up with the tackle to send the teams into the locker room with the Bucs leading 21-16.

Carlton Davis opened the second half with a great pass breakup in coverage on Cooper before Prescott found Schultz for five yards to set up a 3rd & 5. The Cowboys converted yet again, with Prescott hitting Cooper for a 16-yard gain near midfield. A few plays later, the two linked up for yet another third-down conversion, with Cooper beating Andrew Adams. Tampa Bay failed to come up with a huge play on the next snap, with Davis breaking up another pass and Tryon-Shoyinka just missing an interception off of the deflection.

Adams was called for pass interference on the next play, getting Dallas inside the red zone. However, the reserve safety later made up for the flag that he was called for, dropping Elliott on an option play inside the 5-yard line to force another field goal try. Zuerlein barely made it, but it got the Cowboys within 21-19 with 9:15 left in the third quarter.

Mickens picked up another nice return on the ensuing kickoff, setting the Buccaneer offense up at the 34-yard line. But the unit couldn’t get anything going, with three straight incompletions leading to a Pinion punt. After a 12-yard return by Lamb, Dallas set up at the 25-yard line with all of the momentum.

On the first play of the Cowboys’ next drive, the Bucs grabbed the momentum back. Prescott made a nice throw to Lamb over the middle, but the pass went through the receiver’s hands and into the hands of Carlton Davis. The return was a good one, but a block in the back call on Barrett pushed the offense back to the 35. Nonetheless, it was a huge turnover forced by the Tampa Bay defense.

Brady found Gronkowski near the sideline for 20 yards on the first play of the next possession, but back-to-back two-yard gains set up a 3rd & 6 at the 11. The Bucs needed a third-down conversion in the worst way. Well, what about getting six points on third down? Brady hung in against the blitz and hit Gronkowski over the middle for an easy touchdown. With Succop’s PAT, the Bucs extended their lead to 28-19.

Elliott finally picked up some nice yardage on a run to open the next Dallas drive, getting 13 yards before being knocked out of bounds by Antoine Winfield Jr. After another first down across midfield, Devin White came up with a strong stop of Elliott for no gain as the clock ticked under four minutes left in the third quarter. A nine-yard pass to Lamb set up a 3rd & 1 at the 33, and Dallas converted again. The aerial attack pressed on, with Prescott finding Schultz for a six-yard gain with David in coverage.

The Bucs came up and forced yet another third down a couple of plays later, but they once again failed to get off the field. Prescott found Cooper for a 21-yard touchdown and after Zuerlein’s PAT, Dallas was back within 28-26 with 33 seconds left in the third quarter.

Tampa Bay opened its next possession with a 10-yard pass from Brady to Fournette, then benefitted from an illegal hands to the face penalty on Dallas as the third quarter came to a close with the defending champs leading by two.

Opening the fourth quarter with a first down from their own 40, Fournette picked up seven yards on the ground. Brady looked to Fournette again on the next play, but the pass went for just one yard to bring up a 3rd & 2. Tampa Bay got a badly needed conversion with Brady finding Evans for the first time in a while, getting the ball across midfield and into Dallas territory. But after Fournette was stopped for no gain and Brady was nearly picked a third time, the Bucs faced a 3rd & 19. Brady had Godwin deep, but the ball went off his hands, leading to a punt. Dallas would have a chance to re-gain the lead with 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Pinion came on and delivered another good punt, which was caught for a fair catch at the 6-yard line.

On the ensuing Cowboys possession, Tampa Bay’s defense stepped up at exactly the right time. Dean stopped Cooper for a gain of just two on first down, then the Bucs forced two incompletions for a quick three-and-out.

Leading by two and going from its 37 with 10:54 left in the game, the Tampa Bay offense really had a chance to kill some clock and go up by two possessions. Brady started the drive with a seven-yard completion to Gronkowski. A pass from Brady to Godwin got another nine and set the offense up in Dallas territory with under 10 minutes left. A six-yard pickup on an end-around by Brown preceded a seven-yard pass to Fournette to the 34-yard line. After a rare Marpet false start, Brady found Evans for a nine-yard gain to bring up a 2nd & 6 at the Cowboys’ 30 with under 7:30 to go.

A swing pass from Brady to Fournette picked up a key first down, taking the clock under seven minutes and getting the ball just outside the red zone. Brady hit Brown for a quick three-yard gain, then Fournette got six to bring up a massive 3rd & 1 at the 14-yard line. Vita Vea lined up at fullback, but it was Fournette with the carry to move the chains. But on the next play, disaster struck again for the Bucs. Godwin caught a pass and made some nice moves to get near the goal line, but he fumbled the ball away and Dallas recovered. First down for the Cowboys at their own 10 with 4:52 to go.

A host of Bucs stopped Elliott for one yard on first down before Schultz got three to bring up 3rd & 6 with under four minutes to go. But a neutral-zone infraction on Suh moved Dallas a little closer and made for an easy third-down conversion. Prescott found Cooper yet again on the next play for 11 yards, getting the ball past the 30 with under three minutes left. Vita Vea bull-rushed his way into the backfield and forced an incompletion on the next play, then a huge holding call on the Cowboys brought back what would’ve been a first down into Bucs territory. That backed Dallas up to its own 26 before a nine-yard pass set up a 3rd & 11, which would come after the two-minute warning.

The Cowboys got right within field goal range on the very first play after the two-minute, with Prescott hitting Lamb for 31 yards to Tampa Bay’s 34. After an incompletion and a four-yard run by Elliott, the Bucs called their first timeout of the half before a 3rd & 6 play with 1:42 to go. Tampa Bay got the stop, but a holding penalty backed Dallas up to 3rd & 16. They got the 10 yards back, which set Zuerlein up for a 48-yard field goal. Of course, this time, he made it. With that, the Cowboys led 29-28 with 1:24 to go.

Starting from its 25 with one timeout to work with, the Buccaneer offense moved quickly. Brady found Giovani Bernard for eight yards and he got out of bounds at the 33 with 1:18 left. Following an incompletion, Brady found Bernard again for a first down. But a false start on Donovan Smith cost Tampa Bay its final timeout. A six-yard pass to Gronkowski got the Bucs a little closer, then a 20-yarder to Gronkowski got the Bucs to the Dallas 42 with 28 seconds left.

One incompletion later, Brady found Godwin for 24 yards to the Cowboys’ 18, which was well within range for Succop.

To burn some clock, Brady threw a few incompletions. Then, it was time for Succop to attempt a game-winner. Sure enough, the veteran absolutely nailed it, sending it through the uprights to give the Bucs a 31-29 lead with two seconds remaining.

The Cowboys got one last play, but it was a formality. The Bucs escaped with a 31-29 win to start the season 1-0 and extend their winning streak, which dates back to last year, to nine games.

Quick Notes & Stats

  • The Bucs were outgained 451-431, lost the turnover battle 4-1 and were flagged 11 times for 106 yards. But they walked away with a 1-0 start to the 2021 season.
  • Red zone efficiency was key in this one, with Dallas going 1-for-4 and Tampa Bay going 3-for-5.
  • Dak Prescott’s return to the field was an impressive one. There didn’t appear to be any rust as he went 42-of-58 for 403 yards and three scores to just one interception, which came on a ball that should’ve been caught by CeeDee Lamb.
  • Ezekiel Elliott was a non-factor for Dallas, rushing just 11 times for 33 yards.
  • Tom Brady was absolutely locked in for most of the night, and the offense’s shortcomings were almost completely on the shoulders of those around him. Brady finished the night 32-of-50 for 379 yards and four touchdowns. He threw two interceptions, but one went off the hands of Leonard Fournette and the other came on a Hail Mary to end the first half.
  • Antonio Brown was unsurprisingly a big factor for the Bucs, catching five passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
  • Rob Gronkowski was perhaps even more of a key to this win, catching eight passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. With the first of those two scores, he and Tom Brady tied Steve Young and Jerry Rice for the third-most regular season touchdown connections in NFL history. With the second score, they moved into sole possession of third.
  • Save for his costly fumble in the fourth quarter, Chris Godwin had a strong night, catching a team-high nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
  • Vita Vea was a force for Tampa Bay’s defense, getting monstrous pressure up the middle as only he does.
  • Bradley Pinion had himself a phenomenal night, punting four times, with three of them landing inside the Dallas 10-yard line.
  • Tom Brady put up his 100th career 300-yard passing game on Thursday night, which puts him alongside Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks in league history with more than 100 such games.

The Buccaneers (1-0) return to Raymond James Stadium next Sunday (Sept. 19) to host the Atlanta Falcons. Kickoff is set for 4:05 p.m.