Lofty, maybe even gargantuan, expectations don't faze Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The reigning Super Bowl champions open the 2021 NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, confident they have everything it takes -- at least on paper -- to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Brady led the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots to consecutive crowns.
Cowboys, Bucanneers play Thursday night at 7:20 p.m. on NBC 5
No one knows what it's like to have a target on your back every week more than Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl winner who turned 44 during training camp -- a few days after reminding teammates the first order of business is leaving last season behind.
The Bucs return all 22 starters from a top 10 offense and defense, however, Brady and coach Bruce Arians stress talent alone doesn't guarantee continued success.
"In one way, you're not really defending it much, it's kind of in the books. They can't take away what we've done. It's really just a whole other year and experience," Brady said.
"We have a lot of continuity. We have a lot of things to build on and a lot more experience together," Brady added. "That's really all you can ask for as players is to be in the position that we're in. I'd just like us to go out and take advantage of that."
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With Brady entering his second season working with a bevy of playmakers that includes receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard, the Bucs think they can be even more potent on offense.
The defense returns intact, too, with linebackers Devin White, Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett leading the way and a youthful group of cornerbacks and safeties looking to make names for themselves.
"As good as we played with the same group of guys, I'd love to see where we can get this year," Brady said.
"Again, all of it is earned. There's nothing given. It's not about a bunch of hype or a bunch of buildup. We have to go do it," Brady added. "I think that's about a bunch of guys that are really mature and see ourselves as professional athletes. We want to go out there and put our best out there."
The Cowboys are coming off a 6-10 finish in which they played most of the season without quarterback Dak Prescott.
Prescott returns Thursday night for the first time since suffering the severe ankle injury that ended his year last October. He didn't play in the preseason, either, after straining his right shoulder early in training camp.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is excited to get Prescott back on the field and spoke to his team about the opportunity to face a seemingly ageless Brady and the defending champs in the season opener for the entire NFL.
"We talked about ... just how fortunate we are to be part of it on whatever level, most importantly the players," McCarthy said.
"There's definitely a youthfulness that has to exist to be successful, and I think (Brady's) a good example if there ever was one that has played the game, or any sport, of the way you need to go about it," McCarthy said. "He exudes with that every time he lines up. Very consistent. I think it's a big part of his continued success."
FACING THE BEST
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott believes he can find the form that led to a pair of rushing titles in his first three seasons as he tries to rebound from a career-low 979 yards rushing.
If he wants a fast start, it'll have to come against the league's No. 1 rushing defense in 2020. And it's expected to be without four-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin, who tested positive for COVID-19 five days before the game. Third-year pro Connor McGovern is set to replace Martin, as he did last year when Martin battled a calf issue and missed six games.
QUINN'S DALLAS DEBUT
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who missed the last two preseason games after a positive COVID-19 test, makes his debut with the Cowboys after getting fired midseason as coach in Atlanta last year. He replaced Mike Nolan, who lasted just one season after McCarthy hired him.
The Cowboys used eight of their 11 draft picks on defense, starting with Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall. Dallas hopes to have better luck with free agents, including two who played for Quinn with the Falcons. Damontae Kazee is expected to start at safety, while fellow former Atlanta safety Keanu Neal has moved to linebacker.
"My confidence is what I see every day," McCarthy said. "I see a bunch that's connecting. I think just the fact that if you take something as simple as the missed assignments vs. the mental errors breakdown, our defense has been ahead of our offense."
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
Dallas rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa didn't seem too concerned about giving Brady bulletin board material before the third-round pick out of UCLA had even played a regular-season game.
"He's not very mobile," said Odighizuwa, who is 21 years younger than Brady. "The dude is a little older, not too mobile."
Asked the importance of interior pressure in what is likely to be a starting role in his NFL debut, Odighizuwa said, "Get him off his spot and his passer rating goes down by a lot." What's a lot? "I think they say it goes down by 50," Odighizuwa said.
Given a chance to backtrack, Odighizuwa didn't.
"I feel like he's not a guy who's too worried about what I'm saying," he said. "He's obviously going to be aware of it, but he's been doing this for a while. People have been saying this, that and a third. He's been doing his thing."