Winners, losers of Buccaneers’ season-opening victory vs. Cowboys: Bad day for Ezekiel Elliott, other RBs

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The first of the NFL’s 272 regular-season games this season – a new record as the league expands to a 17-game schedule for each team – is in the books following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 31-29 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night’s 2021 kickoff game in Tampa.

Given the result, it’s pretty obvious to everyone who the primary winner and loser was from Week 1’s opening matchup. But let’s not stop there! It only takes a little extra digging to reveal several other W’s and L’s from the first NFL game that counts in more than seven months. 

WINNERS

Tom Brady: What else is new? The guy with seven Super Bowl rings orchestrated a game-winning field-goal drive on the Bucs’ final possession, marching them 57 yards in 82 seconds, the key play a gorgeous 24-yard back-shoulder completion to Chris Godwin at the Dallas 18-yard line. Brady is now 15-4 all-time in Week 1, the most wins during the NFL’s opening weekend during the Super Bowl era (since 1966). TB12 is also 6-0 all-time against Dallas.

Dak Prescott: In his first game action since he suffered a stomach-turning ankle injury Oct. 11 – one that ended his 2020 season prematurely and required multiple surgeries – he was spectacular. Statistically, Prescott was better than Brady, throwing for 403 yards, three TDs and finishing with a 101.4 passer rating. It was the eighth 400-yard passing game of Prescott’s six-year career, one fewer than all other Dallas quarterbacks … combined. Not the result he hoped for, but plenty of reason for optimism given all the questions about Prescott’s leg (and the throwing shoulder he injured during training camp) entering this game. 

Rob Gronkowski: The greatest tight end in NFL history – yeah, that’s right – snagged a pair of TDs, giving him 10 all-time in season openers, most in league history at his position. Gronk was also spearing passes from Brady with one hand on his way to eight receptions (for 90 yards) and generally looking like a 26-year-old version of himself.

Cowboys WRs: Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper staked an early claim that they’re now the league’s top receiving duo, combining for 20 receptions, 243 yards and three TDs. 

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Ryan Succop: Tampa Bay’s (fully vaccinated) kicker only recently returned from a bout with COVID-19 but nailed the game-winning 36-yard field goal with 2 seconds to spare.

Buccaneers’ playoff chances: Since 1978, when the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games, 53% of teams that won their opener went on to qualify for the playoffs and 32% secured division titles. All eight of the division winners in 2020 won their first game, as did 11 of the 14 teams that qualified for last season’s postseason field. And, for those of you who have suggested the Bucs might go 20-0 on their way to a Super Bowl repeat? Well … maybe.

Brady the pitchman: Guess he needed to make more bread given the cheddar his wife generates. So now TB12 is selling Subway’s bread … in spectacular fashion.

LOSERS

Brady the pitchman: As Thursday night wore on, Brady also tried to sell me cryptocurrency – with help from his spouse, Gisele Bündchen. I was all in for a foot-long sub … until this egregious overreach. Now I’m saving my hard earned to buy a pair of Air Jordans like the blue and silver 1s new Jumpman rep Prescott rocked in Tampa.

Cowboys’ playoff chances: Since 1978, when the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games, only 24% of teams that started 0-1 wound up reaching postseason and just 14% claimed divisional crowns. At least Dallas plays in the NFC East, the worst division in the league a year ago, a trend that could well extend to 2021. Still, three teams advanced to the playoffs last season after losing in Week 1.

Dallas defense: New D same as the old D? Welp … On the plus side, a unit being remade by new coordinator Dan Quinn forced four turnovers, including two interceptions of Brady. But the Cowboys couldn’t sack TB12, gave up an unsightly 6.7 yards per play and crumbled after being staked to a 29-28 lead with less than 90 seconds to play. Dallas allowed a franchise-worst 473 points in 2020 – 29.6 per game – and starts the 2021 season by surrendering 31 more. In fairness, the Cowboys may not face another opponent as good as Tampa Bay, but still a disheartening start given the opportunity to steal a win this big on the road.

Running backs: Where were they? Cowboys and Bucs backs combined to run for 93 yards on 27 carries, or 3.4 per attempt, with Tampa’s Ronald Jones II setting up a second-quarter Dallas TD with a fumble deep in the Buccaneers’ end of the field. On the ensuing play from scrimmage, teammate Leonard Fournette saw the ball bounce out off his hands and into the grasp of Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs. The absence of All-Pro Dallas G Zack Martin (COVID-19) certainly did no favors for Ezekiel Elliott (game-high 33 rushing yards). 

Drew Brees: Realize you’re new to this broadcast thing, No. 9, but we’re gonna need more than the Cowboys “need to score touchdowns” from NBC’s halftime desk. Saints captain> Captain Obvious.

Tyler Biadasz: Dallas’ new center isn’t going to enjoy reviewing his tape against 347-pound Bucs DL Vita Vea. Offensive lineman are supposed to dispense pancakes, not eat them. Some advice, Tyler? Sit next to G Connor Williams in the film room … he wasn’t much better.

Public safety? Much as we want to see full venues, still jarring to see Raymond James Stadium packed with fans who received nothing more than a recommendation to wear masks – advice disregarded en masse. The pandemic is far from over, and given how little Florida has done to contain it – politically and in practice – have to wonder about the potential for another senseless super spreader.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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