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On Tap Bets: NFL Thursday Night Kickoff Preview – Tampa Bay vs. Dallas

The 2021 NFL season kicks off Thursday with an excellent matchup. Will the defending champion Bucs continue their dominating ways, or will the newly healthy Cowboys prove they’re for real?

Cowboys Buccaneers Betting Preview Picks
Graphic: NFL Analysis Network

We’ve finally made it! The 2021 NFL season kicks off this Thursday with a monster of a matchup. The defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be hosting the Dallas Cowboys, a team looking to bounce back from a tragically disappointing 2020 season.

This is truly a battle between high floors and high ceilings. We know what we’re getting with the Buccaneers, who should again be a Super Bowl contender. The Cowboys however are a team coming in with a lot of hope and promise. They will be getting back a number of critical players they were without a season ago. Can they put the pieces back together and challenge the champs?

Let’s take a look at this excellent matchup.

The Rundown

  • Spread: Tampa Bay -8.0
  • Over/Under: 51.5
  • Game Info: Thursday, September 9, 7:20 PM Central (NBC)

Dallas Cowboys

Dak Prescott Cowboys
Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Offense

There’s no sugar-coating it. The Cowboys’ offense was abysmal in 2020. They were 20th in receiving touchdowns and 21st in rushing touchdowns. The unit was 24th in the NFL per Football Outsiders DVOA rankings and finished third in a historically bad NFC East. It was a year to forget for America’s team.

However, while no excuse is a good excuse when it comes to professional sports, Dallas was dealt the perfect storm of devastating injuries in a year that was already flipped on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team was already struggling over their first five games when Dak Prescott experienced one of the most gruesome injuries we’ve seen. The compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle are burned into the retina of fans. It ended Prescott’s season and quite possibly any remaining hope the Cowboys had along with it.

It wasn’t just Prescott though. Dallas’ offensive line core, an elite unit in years prior, was a shell of themselves as well. Already without Pro-Bowler Travis Frederick (retirement), the Cowboys lost another Pro-Bowler in Tyron Smith, as well as starting tackle La’el Collins to season-ending injuries. All-Pro guard Zack Martin was also unavailable for nearly half the season. With a struggling Andy Dalton at the helm and a carousel of starting linemen, it was little surprise Dallas was what they were on offense.

Last year is in the past, however. It’s a new year and Dallas will look a lot more like its 2019 version… at least on paper. Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins are all expected to be healthy once again, at least for the season as a whole.

However, in a major blow all too reminiscent, the Cowboys announced that Zack Martin is likely to miss the Tampa Bay game due to COVID. La’el Collins’ Week 1 status is also in question.

The biggest shot in the arm is the return of Dak Prescott, who threw for the second-most yards in the league in 2019. Prescott will once again be throwing to one of the league’s best receiving corps in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. Assuming Prescott has no lingering issues, this will once again be one of the league’s best air raids.

Oh, and don’t forget the guy beside Prescott. Dallas’s one constant Ezekiel Elliott. Since being drafted in 2016, the 26-year-old has carried the ball over 300 times in three of his five seasons. He averaged four yards per carry a season ago behind his makeshift line. The Cowboys will surely try to dial back the wear-and-tear on their young running back, but he will always be a major threat to opposing defenses.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys’ 2020 struggles were not limited to their offense.

Defense

On the season the team allowed 473 points, fifth-worst in the NFL. Their run defense was particularly bad as they allowed the second-most rushing yards in the league.

The Cowboys will get their starting DT Trysten Hill back from a torn ACL, but other than him there’s no clear boost on the defensive side of the ball like there is on offense, but one could argue they shouldn’t have been as bad as they were with the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence and a revitalized Aldon Smith getting after quarterbacks. First- and second-rounders Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith should have cleaned up at linebacker as well. The front office agreed, firing defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and replacing him with Dan Quinn. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula was also axed following the season.

For what it’s worth the Cowboys did start to turn things around over the second half of the season, forcing 20 turnovers over their final nine games compared to just three over their first seven. They will hope to build upon that.

This defense will still be the biggest question for the Cowboys. But with fresh blood on the sideline and a renewed focus on winning football, maybe they’ll turn it around.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rob Gronkowski Tom Brady Buccaneers
Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Offense

The Tampa Bay offense was third in the league last year in DVOA, behind only Green Bay and Kansas City. In his age 43 season, Tom Brady threw for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns with a completion percentage approaching 66%. Wide receiver Mike Evans turned in his seventh straight 1,000-yard season, and Ronald Jones Jr. rushed for 978 yards on just 13.7 attempts per game.

Much of the Bucs success on offense is attributed to Tom Brady. However, it’s a lot easier for a QB to have success when he is protected by the third-best offensive line in football.

I could sit here and list all the names, but in the end… guess what? They’re ALL back. That’s right, barring any unforeseen injuries or COVID-related hiccups, Tampa Bay’s offense, which so efficiently carved up defenses on their way to a Super Bowl victory, is returning at full strength.

At some point, Tom Brady has to age right? We’ve been asking the question for years now. Well, given what we know, there’s no reason to believe 2021 is the season that happens. This is the team to beat in the NFC and Vegas agrees, offering up +650 odds. Green Bay is the next closest at +1200.

Defense

What second-year head coach Bruce Arians and his staff did last season in Tampa was amazing. Most fans will talk about Tom Brady and the offense but don’t forget that the Bucs were near-elite on the defensive side of the ball as well.

This is especially true in defending the rush where Tampa Bay allowed an NFL-fewest 1,289 yards. To put that into perspective the next closest was the Colts with 1,448.

Linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, and Shaquil Barrett combined for 24.5 sacks and Ndamukong Suh added another six. Add in LB Lavonte David, safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead, and others, and Tampa Bay is returning all of their tackling leaders from a season ago.

Like the offense, this defensive unit gives zero indication on paper that they will take a step back from their championship ways.

The Pick

This line opened up at Tampa Bay -6.5 but was quickly bet to -8 to where it sits now, and for good reason. This Dallas Cowboys team should be MUCH improved from a year ago. But that’s on paper. We haven’t seen Dak throw a football competitively since Week 5 of last season, and ‘Zeke was given zero carries in the preseason to save his legs.

As mentioned, the Cowboys may also be without two of their starting linemen again. The Bucs on the other hand, give no reason to be hesitant.

I think Dallas is going to have a good year, I really do. I like them to win the NFC East by a pretty healthy margin. They just drew the short straw with this brutal Week 1 matchup. Working to gel again and shake off the cobwebs on offense, with a struggling defense settling into a new scheme, all while being at Raymond James Stadium during a Super Bowl celebration, is just a bad recipe. I wanted to take Dallas early, they have so much more to prove, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This line could climb more, but I wouldn’t go past -9.

Pick: Tampa Bay -8

Zach Drinovsky Pick Dashboard: Tallysight

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