It’s finally here: NFL football officially returns with the regular season opener featuring the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hosting America’s Team. One team is looking to replicate a great 2020 season that ended by making NFL history: Tampa Bay became the first team to ever play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium, and they won. The other team, the Cowboys, are hoping to leave their 2020 season in the rearview mirror completely.
Beyond the 2020 season, though, these two teams’ histories haven’t intertwined very much. The Cowboys and Buccaneers have just 17 total head-to-head games against each other, with two of those games coming in the postseason. The only NFC team that Dallas has played fewer games against is the Panthers, who are tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars as the third-newest franchise after joining the league in 1995. Ironically, the Panthers and Jaguars were the first teams to be added to the NFL since Tampa Bay, but given that the Buccaneers joined in 1976, it’s still surprising to see how few times these teams have faced off.
The Buccaneers are probably thankful for that, though, as they’ve historically struggled against Dallas. The Cowboys lead the head-to-head series with a 13-4 record, and won both playoff matchups. The last time these two teams played each other was two days before Christmas during the 2018 season. The Cowboys were coming off a 23-0 loss to the Colts - the first time they had been shut out since 2003 - and responded with a 27-20 victory over the Buccaneers to clinch the NFC East. The win was capitalized by this 69-yard fumble recovery touchdown from Jaylon Smith, who was still universally beloved by fans at the time:
A #ClearEyeView TD for Jaylon Smith. Randy Gregory forced the fumble. #Cowboys up 14-3 in the 1st Qtr. @BlueStarBlog pic.twitter.com/V7kPpDnl6i— Newy Scruggs (@newyscruggs) December 23, 2018
The last time the Cowboys lost to the Buccaneers was the 2015 season, a game in which Matt Cassel was the starting quarterback and Darren McFadden the leading rusher. Jameis Winston, in his rookie year, was the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback. Neither threw a touchdown, and they combined for three interceptions. Tampa Bay pulled out a 10-6 victory, but it was a brutal game for all.
The other three times the Cowboys lost to the Buccaneers all came in the early 2000’s, when Tampa Bay was a blooming dynasty, while Dallas was a dynasty in steep decline. The first such game came in December of 2000. Troy Aikman threw zero touchdowns and one interception, while Warrick Dunn ran for 210 yards and two touchdowns on head coach Dave Campo’s middling defense. With a final score of 27-7, it was the first time the Buccaneers had ever beaten the Cowboys, having lost their first eight games to this franchise.
The two teams had a rematch that next September, and both defenses played much better. Through the first three quarters, the Cowboys led 6-3. However, Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson ran in one yard for a touchdown early in the fourth to give them a 10-6 lead. Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter was unable to do much of anything against head coach Tony Dungy’s stingy defense, and he threw two picks before the team lost 10-6.
Two years passed before they met again, and both teams were very different. Tampa Bay was now led by Jon Gruden, and they were defending their Super Bowl title the year before, while Dallas was led by Bill Parcells in his first year with the Cowboys. Carter once again struggled for the Cowboys, throwing two interceptions and failing to put up any points at all, with the Cowboys losing 16-0.
Now, the two teams meet again. But the Buccaneers are drastically different even from that 2018 season. Winston has been replaced by Tom Brady (who, by the way, is 5-0 against the Cowboys throughout his career), and head coach Bruce Arians led this team to a Super Bowl victory last year thanks to highly efficient performances on both sides of the ball - the Buccaneers ranked third in offensive DVOA and fifth in defensive DVOA. They also return all 31 of their players who played on at least 200 snaps last year, an unprecedented amount of continuity for a Super Bowl champion.
Historically, the Cowboys have only lost to the Buccaneers when their offense has been nearly nonexistent. But with Dak Prescott making his long-awaited return from injury and having one of the very best arsenals of skill players in the NFL, that shouldn’t be a problem this time around. Unfortunately for Dallas, this may be the best team in Buccaneers history, so that may not matter much. Either way, odds are good that this should be one of the more interesting matchups between these two, and a great way to kick off the season.