By now, you've probably heard that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the easiest schedule in the league entering the 2021 season. You've probably read about the easiest and toughest games on the slate. Perhaps you've even come across a record projection or two.
But how about a storyline, or several, for each matchup?
We've got you covered below. At least, on the regular season games, preseason not so much.
Week 1: Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys
The reigning Super Bowl Champions, with the most successful quarterback of all time in Tom Brady leading the charge, kick-off what is being deemed the most anticipated season in NFL history after an altered, pandemic-riddled 2020 season.
Simultaneously, this game serves as the Return of the Dak.
Buccaneers vs. Cowboys was one of the easier matchups to peg into the first game of the year, as Dak Prescott is set to return to the gridiron after a season-ending ankle injury in 2020. Dallas might have gone 6-10 a year ago but is expected to play at a much higher level in 2021 with Prescott back in the fold and a majority of offseason moves dedicated to retooling its woeful defense. This should be a pretty competitive opening game.
W2: Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are the first of three teams on Tampa Bay's schedule with a new head coach, that being former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
Mike Davis won't boast a 2,000 rushing yard season under Smith as Derrick Henry did a year ago, though. Instead, this offense is expected to air it out as Matt Ryan will have Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, and fourth-overall pick Kyle Pitts to work with down the field.
Atlanta's defense improved slightly this offseason with the additions of cornerback Fabian Moreau, rookie safety Richie Grant, and other depth pieces, but is still far removed from being a competitive unit. Perhaps new defensive coordinator Dean Pees can fix that after coming out of retirement for the second time in just over three years.
W3: Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams
This marks the third time in as many years that the Buccaneers will face the Rams, with the series being split during that span.
Tampa Bay fell to Los Angeles at Raymond James Stadium in Week 11 last year, marking the second-to-last loss that the Buccaneers would suffer before going on to win the Super Bowl. Will the Bucs be able to avenge that loss on the road, in the first season that the new SoFi Stadium will allow fans, with Matthew Stafford now at quarterback for the Rams?
W4: Buccaneers at New England Patriots
While Buccaneers vs. Cowboys was certainly an easy choice for the season-opener, this is surely the most anticipated game of both Tampa Bay and New England's season. It's probably the biggest game of the year for the entire league.
Because, unless you've been living under a rock, you understand that this will be Rob Gronkowski's first game against his former team.
Oh, and Brady's, too.
Brady is the first quarterback to face a team he won a Super Bowl with as a starter since Peyton Manning faced his former Indianapolis Colts with the Denver Broncos. Manning compiled a 1-3 record (regular and postseason) against the Colts from 2013-15, losing his first matchup against Indianapolis on the road by a score of 39-33.
The Colts had replaced Manning with a generational quarterback prospect in Andrew Luck though, which certainly helped Indianapolis. Brady and the Bucs may have better luck against Cam Newton or Mac Jones, whoever Bill Belichick rides with as the Patriots' starter.
W5: Buccaneers vs. Miami Dolphins
This is also an interesting game when you think about Brady's past. Miami's head coach Brian Flores, albeit coaching the other side of the ball, spent 15 years with Brady in New England, in some capacity helping earn four of the six Super Bowl rings that Brady won with the Patriots.
Flores has coached against Brady twice in his career, both times during his first season in charge of the Dolphins. The Patriots shut the Dolphins out 43-0 in matchup No. 1; the Dolphins upset the Patriots at home in the second contest and Brady's final game against his AFC East rival as a Patriot, 27-24.
W6: Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Sirianni is the second rookie head coach on the Buccaneers schedule. Although Sirianni's experience hails from the offensive side of the ball, his unit doesn't appear as threatening on paper as Arthur Smith's Falcons.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts enters that feels like a prove-it year in his first full season as a starter and second season as a pro. The expectations for Hurts seem crazy, but it's hard to imagine that Howie Roseman will remain the general manager beyond 2021 if the Eagles don't turn things around. And if a new general manager is Philly-bound in 2022, a new quarterback probably is as well.
W7: Buccaneers vs. Chicago Bears
The Bears were able to squeeze out a one-point victory over the Buccaneers last season behind the efforts of Nick Foles at quarterback. Now the question is, will Andy Dalton or first-round pick Justin Fields leading Chicago on the road against Tampa Bay?
Dalton is a serviceable backup but proved in 2020 that he isn't a quarterback who can win his team games. The Bears have a good but not great roster and may need to depend on a quarterback to elevate the team, particularly against the reigning champs. That's a big ask of Fields, but that's why the Bears traded up to draft him, isn't it?
W8: Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
What will a Drew Brees-less Saints offense look like? Will former Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston look like an improved signal-caller should he earn the starting role? Can the Saints overcome significant roster losses, particularly on defense such as defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and Malcolm Brown, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, and cornerback Janoris Jenkins among others? Will the Buccaneers find a way to defeat the Saints in the regular season, unlike last year?
If you're looking for a matchup on Tampa Bay's schedule loaded with questions, here it is.
The Buccaneers had to play 12 games in 2020 before earning a break. This season is much more balanced for the Bucs as their bye falls dead in the middle of the year.
W10: Buccaneers at Washington Football Team
In this reporter's opinion, Washington stands out as the toughest game on the schedule for Tampa Bay this season as of right now.
The Football Team was Tampa Bay's toughest test in the entire playoffs several months ago, keeping it a one-score game with the Buccaneers while playing in Maryland. That's where the stage is set for the rematch as well, and both teams should be fresh and re-energized for the game following an idle Week 9.
Since the playoffs, Washington has gotten better. The Football Team's front five on defense remains one of the league's best while the wide receiver and cornerback rooms were upgraded in free agency. Time will tell how much magic quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has left in the tank, but perhaps he has enough with a strong team around him to knock off his former team in the Buccaneers. This is expected to be the first time Fitzpatrick plays against Tampa Bay.
W11: Buccaneers vs. New York Giants
The Giants have the makings of a sneaky good team in the NFC East, but all hinges on Daniel Jones' development entering his third season as the team's starting quarterback. Jones has no excuses now after New York devoted its offseason to surrounding its signal-caller with weapons such as Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, and Saquon Barkey's return to health is a cherry on top for the third-year QB. Sprinkle in tight end Evan Engram and receivers Darius Slayton and Sterling Shephard as well.
If Jones can cut down on turnovers and take the next step in his game, the Giants' offense might be one of the toughest Tampa Bay faces all year. His offensive line, specifically second-year tackles Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart will have to improve as well. Nate Solder's return after opting out of the 2020 season is welcomed.
W12: Buccaneers at Indianapolis Colts
It's hard to find a spot on the Colts roster where the team genuinely improved this offseason. Kwity Paye is probably the only rookie who will start this season, and although he is an intriguing edge-rushing prospect, his lack of college production (11.5 sacks in 28 games) is a bit concerning right out of the gate.
Although it was time for Philip Rivers to hang up his cleats, the Colts arguably downgraded at quarterback by replacing Rivers with former Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz should be well-protected after the Colts addressed offensive line depth and signed Eric Fisher to start at left tackle once he has recovered from a torn Achilles. However, the Colts provided Wentz with no additional weapons other than late-round picks and undrafted free agents. Keep in mind, T.Y. Hilton led the team in receiving with a mere 762 yards and five touchdowns last year.
It's hard to expect the Colts to win double-digit games for a consecutive year at this point, and this could surprisingly be one of the easier road games on Tampa Bay's schedule.
W13: Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons had better hope Pees can straighten out their defense. Week 13 was Tampa Bay's bye week last year, and the Buccaneers went on to average 37 points per game through the end of the regular season from there.
December Tom Brady activated.
W14: Buccaneers vs. Buffalo Bills
Another threatening offense. If Buffalo is able to build upon its successful 2020 season, there's a solid chance for a rematch of this game in February. Quarterback Josh Allen made an absurd leap in his play in 2020 after a concerning first two seasons as a passer, and the Bills' offense has only gotten stronger and more talented as he's developed. Emmanuel Sanders' addition to the receiver room this offseason makes the position one of the deepest across Buffalo's entire roster, teaming him up with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Gabriel Davis.
W15: Buccaneers vs. New Orleans Saints
By this point, a lot of the Saints-related questions will be answered. If Winston (or Tayson Hill, but we doubt that) emerges as a viable option at quarterback, the Saints could be a thorn in Tampa Bay's side at this point in the season.
If not, who is to say what will happen in New Orleans? The core of the roster remains under contract in 2022 and beyond, meaning the Saints could be aggressive next offseason in searching for a signal-caller to push for the NFC South crown as Brady's career ticks closer to its end.
That's a long way away from now, though. One way or another, this will be a different Saints team than the one the Bucs are used to with Brees typically at the helm.
W16: Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers
The Panthers traded for Sam Darnold and traded away Teddy Bridgewater this offseason, seemingly taking a step backward at quarterback even though Bridgewater was certainly upgradeable.
Whether or not offensive coordinator Joe Brady can fix Darnold after three years of Adam Gase's coaching is yet to be determined, but it is a tall task. Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that Darnold has an 0-2 head-to-head record against Tom Brady (he was inactive for another two matchups against Brady's Patriots).
W17: Buccaneers at New York Jets
Rookie head coach No. 3 in Robert Saleh, paired with the second pick in last month's draft, quarterback Zach Wilson. The dysfunctional Adam Gase era of Jets football is behind us, and things are looking up for New York.
The Jets offense may be in contention for one of the most improved units in football this offseason if Wilson hits, as he teams up with veteran wide receivers Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder and Keelan Cole, along with young talents Denzel Mims and Elijah Moore. Mekhi Becton was a star as a rookie left tackle and he'll enjoy the company of first-round guard Alijah Vera-Tucker playing next to him on Sundays this fall.
The Jets defense could use help still, particularly in the secondary. The additions to Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry to New York's defensive line should provide a boost in pass rush production, however.
W18: Buccaneers vs. Carolina Panthers
Similar to the Giants, the Panthers own a pretty nice team on paper with the biggest question coming at quarterback. Carolina's homegrown defense got better with the addition of cornerback Jaycee Horn in the first round. Darnold also has a great arsenal of weapons in veteran receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, as well as rookie receivers Terrace Marshall Jr. and Shi Smith along with tight end Tommy Tremble.
Oh, and don't forget about running back Christian McCaffrey.