TAMPA, Fla. — The N.F.L. loves its quarterback duels, and Tom Brady and Dak Prescott attacked and riposted over and over on Thursday evening. In the season opener, Brady, who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl title final season, and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who signed an eye-popping contract extension in the low season, traded touchdowns in a compelling if generally sloppy sport that was selected the closing drive.
The Buccaneers held on for a 31-29 victory as Brady and Prescott mixed for 782 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Brady landed the final punch, main the Buccaneers 57 yards downfield in lower than 90 seconds so Ryan Succop may kick the successful discipline objective with two seconds left.
“There was no doubt we were going to go win that game” as a result of Brady was at the helm, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians mentioned.
But the closing rating and particular statistics had been virtually irrelevant to the pass-happy affair that swooned on massive performs and miscues. The sport was a reminder of the leisure worth of the N.F.L. and was welcomed by soccer followers who haven’t seen a sport since the 2020 season that was distorted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The sport additionally occurred in the identical stadium as the final sport of final season, Super Bowl LV. The Buccaneers regarded the identical, too. They introduced again all 22 of their starters to defend their title — a rarity in the free-agent period.
Attendance, which had been capped at 22,000 spectators for the title sport, lastly regarded regular, too. Few followers wore masks, since they’re now not required there, and each seat in Raymond James Stadium was stuffed, in achievement of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s March promise. Back then, nevertheless, vaccination charges had been rising nationwide and the variety of infections was plummeting.
Six months later, the Delta variant of the virus has became a delta for the N.F.L., similar to the remainder of the nation.
“Our challenge right now, and it’s something we discuss with the ownership, is certainly that we are in a major surge,” Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, mentioned final month. “It is no secret to any of you, nor is it a secret to any of us in medicine what the impact of the Delta variant is having. It is a very different disease in many ways.”
More than 90 p.c of N.F.L. gamers and all coaches and workers are vaccinated, but dozens of them have examined optimistic for Covid-19 since coaching camps opened in July. Some of the league’s greatest stars, together with quarterbacks Carson Wentz of the Colts and Kirk Cousins of the Vikings, have declined to get vaccinated.
“We’re certainly at more risk this year than we put ourselves in last year,” Brady instructed reporters this week. “I mean, just look at all the things that we’re doing differently from last year at this time. So I would definitely say the risk is up for everybody.”
The 65,000 followers sitting cheek-to-jowl at the sport had been blissful to be again. They posed for pictures close to a Super Bowl LV metallic sculpture in entrance of the stadium and downed beers by the reproduction pirate ship close to the north finish zone. But some mentioned the pandemic nonetheless loomed giant.
“It feels good to be vaccinated” and to have the ability to transfer extra freely, mentioned Winford Artis, a Buccaneers season-ticket holder who went to simply two video games final 12 months. “But in the back of your head, you think of things because this is the new normal. But it feels better.”
Brady and Prescott regarded robust in their return from accidents. Brady, who repaired an injured knee in the low season, regarded snug in the pocket. He accomplished 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards and 4 scores.
Two of these landing passes had been thrown to tight finish Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s teammate for 9 seasons in New England earlier than the pair moved to Florida in 2020. They turned solely the second quarterback-receiver pair in league historical past to mix for 100 touchdowns, and their familiarity with one another was on show all night.
Midway by means of the third quarter, the Buccaneers took over the ball at the Dallas 35-yard line after cornerback Carlton Davis intercepted Prescott. Brady discovered Gronkowski with a 20-yard strike on first down. Three performs later, Brady appeared to anticipate a Cowboys blitz, dropping again a number of steps to purchase time, as Gronkowski bounced off Cowboys defensive finish DeMarcus Lawrence and slipped untouched into the center of the discipline. As if operating a pick-and-roll play in basketball, Brady bought the ball to Gronkowski on the fly and, a number of strides later, the tight finish was in the finish zone.
“It’s unbelievable, the chemistry they’ve had for a long time,” Arians mentioned.
Prescott, who missed most of final season with a major leg harm, accomplished 42 of 58 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns and one interception. Under strain usually, Prescott additionally ran 4 occasions however took just one sack from the vaunted Tampa Bay move rush. Dallas largely deserted the run, speeding for 60 whole yards, 13 of which got here from Prescott.
But Prescott and the Cowboys had been unable to do a lot after recovering two turnovers deep in the Buccaneers’ half of the discipline. And Brady, who was recovering from a knee harm he performed by means of final season, made the Cowboys pay for his or her errors, which included a pair of missed discipline targets from kicker Greg Zuerlein, who’s recovering from an low season again surgical procedure.
It was one other becoming spotlight for a league constructed on heaps of hyperbole.
That hyperbole has made the N.F.L.’s crew homeowners a great deal of cash. After dropping $four billion final 12 months due to attendance restrictions, the league in May signed a 10-year take care of its greatest media companions price greater than $100 billion. It additionally added a 17th regular-season sport, which is able to generate but extra income.
The N.F.L. will little doubt face hurdles because it navigates its expanded season by means of the persistent pandemic. But for one evening, anyway, the N.F.L. felt regular once more.