Bucs vs Cowboys: 2021 NFL Thursday Night Football Season Opener Projections 

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Our long national nightmare is over. The NFL is once again playing meaningful games. It has been 215 days, or 5160 hours, or 309,600 minutes, or 18,576,000 seconds since the Super Bowl. I must say this year has been much better due to the NBA’s late finish. Like a good date, the NBA Playoffs, Draft, and free agency walked us to the front door of the NFL season. 

I think the NBA should permanently shift the start of its season to Christmas Day. It makes perfect sense. First, Christmas Day is already a big TV day on their schedule. Second, they will have to compete less often directly against the NFL for viewers. Third, with the NFL adding a seventeenth game, guess who had to move their All-Star Game already? Finally, it works better with my schedule, and isn’t that most important Commissioner Silver?

What We Know About The TNF Season Opener 

None of the valid qualms we have about Thursday Night Football apply when it is the first week of the season. Rest will not be an issue for either team. Both units had ample time to gameplan. McCarthy held OC Kellen Moore out of Dallas’ final preseason game to focus on game-planning for Tampa Bay. Moore needs all the time he can get. Last season he ran one of the most predictable offenses in the league.

TNF Opening Night Trends

Full disclosure, my model does not consider these factors, but I included them since they are important to many others. 

In nine of the previous ten seasons, the first TNF game has featured the defending Super Bowl Champion. The lone exception was in 2019. In eight of those nine years, the defending champion played the game at home. The sole exception was Baltimore in 2013. One game featured a Super Bowl rematch, Carolina at Denver in 2016. This will be Brady’s third appearance in the game. Brady is 0-1-1 against the spread. The Defending Super Bowl Champions are 6 – 3 straight up and 4-3-1 against the spread. (the Philadelphia game is off the list as it was a pick’em. The Eagles did prevail by six points.)  

Over the previous decade, the first game of the season has seen a median total of 47.5. The over prevailed six times in the last ten years. In five games, 50%, the total has gone over 52. In three of those games, the total has gone over 60. In the eight non-divisional TNF openers in the last ten years, the over has cashed 62.5% of the time. 

The median spread is six points. The favorite is 4-4-1 against the spread. The Atlanta at Philadelphia game went off as a “pick’em.” The moneyline swung such that Atlanta was -119, and Philadelphia -101. The Eagles prevailed 18-12. I have elected to treat this game as a “pick’em,” notwithstanding that the moneyline indicates it is an underdog win.  

Seven or more points have decided an unexpected 80% of the previous ten games. The following chart breaks the margin of victory down around key numbers. In four games. 40%, the margin of victory has been greater than ten points. I combined 3, 4, 5, and 6 because that range has only a single result.

Tonights’ game has the second-highest over and the third-highest spread.

Dallas Cowboys v. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, (-7.5, 52)  

It will be our first look at Tom Brady since he went full-on supernova in the first half of the Super Bowl. His first-half stat line was jaw-dropping, 16-20, 140 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 Ints.

From an unintentional comedy standpoint, I love the tweet for putting Flacco and Brady in the same sentence. (Flacco will always have a spot in my heart as I backed the Ravens’ moneyline in every game of that magical run through the Super Bowl)

The first time we see Tom each season is sort of like visiting your parents in Florida after a year apart. Will he suddenly look old? Will he have even more hair? 

I expect Tampa Bay to employ a similar game plan as they did against Kansas City on defense. While Dallas’s talent level and scheme are not on par with the Chiefs, Dallas is an explosive offensive team with a questionable offensive line. Dallas’ receiving corp is elite. The model ranks them as the third-best unit in the league. Tampa Bay will want to drop seven, especially since they can get pressure with four. 

On offense, Tampa should attack through the air early. Last year, especially early in the season, there were times when they were way too run-heavy on early downs. This crept back up from time to time in the latter part of the season and few wasted drives in the playoffs. Winning teams throw on early downs in the first half. Especially if they face a Dallas defense that will struggle to get pressure and has a vulnerable secondary.

Still, Tampa should run the ball with success against this unit, particularly when they have Dallas in the nickel or dime. Micah Parsons has looked excellent in the preseason, but he is an off-ball linebacker. Look for Tampa to run when he is off the field. If he stays on the field on obvious passing downs, he is most likely blitzing.   

Dallas has some apparent concerns. What will Dak Prescott look like after the gruesome injury in week five last season? The last time we saw him, it was gut-wrenching:

Will OC Moore begin to employ more deception through the increased use of formations, pre-snap motion, and play-action? Can Dan Quinn make this defense even respectable? 

Dallas also has some less apparent flaws. The loss of Travis Fredrick at the center hurt the line significantly. He was the league’s best center and in his prime. Dallas will start Tyler Biadasz, a young player with promise, but he is not Fredrick. 

Biadasz did not frequently work with Prescott because of the injury last season. I expect Tampa Bay to show him a lot of moving fronts to confuse him. (The center calls the blocking assignments for the entire line). For example, flash a double A-gap blitz right after making his initial call, then drop into a zone that takes Prescott’s hot route away. 

News just broke that All-Pro guard Martin will be out for the Cowboys due to Covid. Given that, I expect Tampa to employ an even greater amount of defensive deception. Tampa Bay should not have to blitz to get pressure, but the confusion they can cause through front manipulation could be worth a turnover. 

Without Martin, Dallas will struggle to an even greater degree running the football. Look for Dak’s attempts to go up as he works a quick-hitting underneath passing game. 

So Dallas enters this game against Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers with significant concerns pertaining to talent and scheme. If you have read any of my divisional previews, you know the three things the model cares about most are talent, scheme, and schedule. 

The jury is still out on Prescott. Yes, he posted ridiculous numbers through the five games he played last season. The model thinks they were deceiving. While the Cowboys averaged 31.5 points in the four full games that Dak played, they were just 1 – 3 in those games.

The losses came against quality competition at the Rams and Seattle, and Cleveland. But they lost those three games by a combined 21 points. Starting this season off at Tampa Bay is going to be more difficult than those games.

Line Movement

This line moved quite a bit and across a key number. I would not make too much of that movement. The -6.5 had heavy limits at most shops. The line will not drop back below seven. So really, with limits, it crossed seven but did not return. 

It also indicates that syndicates came in on Tampa Bay’s side heavy once the limits were off. So heavy that the line reached -9.5 on August 21, 2021. It was immediately pummeled right back down. In the span of one hour and twelve minutes on August 21, 2021, the line shed 1.5 points. 

Those who moved heavily on Dallas at +9.5 understood that the number would never get to 10. By pouncing at 9.5, they secured the margins of 8 and 9 in their favor. While neither is considered a key number, combined, those margins account for the final margin of victory in 4.63% of NFL games. 

What The Model Says About This Game

The model has a lot of respect for Tampa Bay and not much for the Dallas defense. The model loved the Buccaneers at -6.5 and began to lean Cowboys when +9.5 started showing up. 

In simulations, the model finds a blowout by the Buccaneers more probable than a Dallas upset. Most frequently, it sees Tampa Bay with a 10-11 point lead in the fourth quarter. With this line, that scenario creates some exposure to a backdoor cover for Dallas, or the blowout 13-18 point win for the Buccaneers. The model concludes the most likely margin of victory for Tampa Bay is 7.97.  

As the chart below indicates, the model sees no value on the Patriots’ moneyline. The Cowboys are getting about seven percentage points, or 35 cents, of value on the moneyline.   

At the current numbers, the model is only on the Over in this game.

A Word About the Model

There are certain advantages to betting early in the season, especially for traditional cappers. This year, the play that stands out was Seattle at +3 and +2.5 week one. We all hammered that number, and now it sits at Seattle -2.5. 

If one is employing a strictly mathematical model, there are difficulties early in the season. The model is forced to use last year’s data solely or weigh in preseason performances on specific metrics to fill in assumptions. I am not a fan of either approach. 

I will release the model’s position on every game this season, but I will also include a notation about whether the model considers the side a viable side. Power rankings will appear on Wednesdays after the third week – once the model has enough current data to make reliable predictions.

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