FLOWERY BRANCH — The defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept the band together over the offseason and are primed to make another run at the title.
With venerable quarterback Tom Brady at the helm, the Bucs squeaked by the Cowboys 31-29 in their season opener Sept. 9.
In the NFC South opener for both teams, the Bucs (1-0) will host the Falcons (0-1) at 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The early betting line had the Bucs favored by 10.5 and then it jumped to 13.5 points.
The Cowboys had the champs on the ropes, but couldn’t deliver the knockout blow, as they missed two field-goal attempts and an extra point.
“Week 2 in the NFL, it’s still really early, but, you know, you want to put yourself in a good position with these early games in the season and you want to win them all,” Brady said on his podcast “Let’s Go! With Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald and Jim Gray” which aired Monday on SiriusXM. “You want to put yourself in a position in September to be good in October. And division games are very important.”
Because they played Thursday, the Buccaneers had the chance to TV scout the Falcons, who were routed 32-6 by the Eagles in their worst season-opening loss since 1987.
Brady is looking forward to the Bucs refining things before facing the Falcons.
Brady tossed four touchdown passes, including two to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Wide receiver Chris Godwin was targeted 14 times and caught nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Antonio Brown had five catches for 121 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown.
The Bucs want to get three-time Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans more involved.
“Mike’s going to get his, I have no doubt,” Brady said. “He had an incredible camp. He’s one of the great all-time receivers and will be a Hall of Famer at some point. For me, it’s just a matter of finding the open guy and putting the ball accurately to allow them to make the plays.”
The Cowboys kept the rushing attack under control. Leonard Fournette rushed nine times for 32 yards, and Ronald Jones has four carries for 14 yards. He was benched after a fumble.
“There’s a lot of things that we didn’t do very well the other night,” Brady said. “And we’ve got to improve those things, and football season is about improvement. It’s not about, ‘Hey, we’re good. We’ll figure it out. You know, we got it.’ You got to put the work in.”
The Falcons lead the series (28-27), but the Bucs swept the two games last season. The Bucs won 31-27 on Dec. 20 in Atlanta and 44-27 on Jan. 3 on their way to the title.
“We’re playing against a team, they have a new scheme, obviously a new coach Arthur Smith,” Brady said. “New (defensive) coordinator Dean Pees. They have a lot of the guys we’re familiar with, they’re in our division, Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, who I love as a receiver, they drafted Kyle Pitts, Deion Jones on defense. A.J. Terrell was a high pick last year.”
Brady plans to keep studying the Falcons.
“So, I feel like I know (them) pretty well, but I got to know (them) better,” Brady said. “I’ve got to have a great week and have a great week of practice and go out there and play well on Sunday.”
The Cowboys didn’t bother to run the ball much at Tampa Bay’s stout defensive front, which features defensive tackles Vita Vea (347 pounds) and five-time Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh (313 pounds). They also have defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David.
“We’re going to have challenges every week,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “There are growing pains. You have to see improvement.”
Dallas did a good job working the edges and attacking the perimeter of the Bucs’ defense as quarterback Dak Prescott passed for 403 yards and three touchdowns running a quick and rhythmic passing attack.
“We’ll see the same things,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians told the Tampa media Friday. “They had a nice plan defensively, too. But I think we’re a bit farther along offensively now. But yeah, we’re going to see screens, screens, screens. Throw it out there and see if you can make the tackle.”
The Bucs lost cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting to a dislocated elbow and signed journeyman cornerback Pierre Desir. They also could get safety Jordan Whitehead (hamstring) back.
“They’re the defending Super Bowl champions,” Smith said. “They have a lot of veteran players that have played in a lot of games. We’re going down there. ... That’s life in the NFL.”
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