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We’re almost there. Tomorrow evening, the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kickoff the 2021 NFL regular season on Thursday Night Football. Both teams have a lot to prove on Thursday. Dallas needs to show their 2020 season was only as pitiful as it was due to the injury to Dak Prescott, while Tampa needs to show their 2020 season wasn’t a fluke.

The Buccaneers, of course, are coming off a Super Bowl title. Tom Brady led the team on a magical run that culminated in a 31-9 domination of the Chiefs. Brady is back for another shot at defending his latest championship. All of which begs the question: can the Buccaneers do it again? Let’s examine the case:

The offense

Brady deserves a ton of credit for steering the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl after many observers wrote him off as over the hill. That being said, it was the defense that carried the Bucs most of last year. On the bright side for Brady and the offense, that means they’ve got more room to grow.

The offense is mostly the same as last year, although there are a couple of potential positives. Tampa will get tight end O.J. Howard back after he missed 12 games last year with a torn Achilles. On the other hand, Rob Gronkowski is now 32, and we’ve heard that Howard still isn’t 100 recovered from his devastating injury.

The Bucs will also get a full season out of Antonio Brown. The frequently embattled receiver was suspended for the first eight games of 2020. Their offensive line returns all five starters, and it’s a very solid group, but it is a bit thin which will concern me if there’s an injury. Tristan Wirfs looked like an emerging star last year, and should be one of the best right tackles in the league this season.

The defense

Like I mentioned above, the defense carried the team most of last year. There are a couple positives and a couple negatives here when looking at this year compared to last. The most notable positive is that they’ll get a full season out of stud defensive tackle Vita Vea, who was limited to five games last year by an ankle injury. Vea, of course, heroically returned for the NFC Championship Game and played a big role in their last couple wins.

It’s nothing to be too alarmed about, but a few of the key pieces are getting up there in age. Lavonte David is 31, Jason Pierre-Paul is 32, and Ndamukong Suh is 34. Steve McClendon, the veteran nose tackle who played a pretty big role after getting acquired from the Jets midway through the season, is 35.

Starting safety Jordan Whitehead is dealing with a hamstring injury that’s mildly concerning. Whitehead, a 16-game starter last year, is going to miss the opener against Dallas. If this turns into something serious that lingers, it’ll be a big loss. It’s a simple fact of today’s NFL that elite defenses are a lot harder to maintain year to year than elite offenses.

There’s just more variance. That’s not to say the Buccaneers can’t have one of the best stop units in the NFL, but it won’t be as easy as just running it back with the same guys and automatically expecting the same results.

The bottom line: Buccaneers won’t repeat

I’m skeptical the Buccaneers will contend for a Super Bowl this season. But not because they got much worse this offseason. I just don’t think they were as good as most people think in 2020. Remember, this is a team that looked like they might miss the playoffs with a few weeks to go. Then they barely snuck past Taylor Heinicke in the first round.

In the second round they faced a rapidly physically deteriorating Drew Brees. And it looked like they were destined to lose to the Saints before Jared Cook’s fumble completely changed the game. In the NFC Championship Game against the Packers, Brady threw three interceptions and Tampa again eked out a close game because of a series of Green Bay miscues.

They saved their best for last, and did play lights out in the Super Bowl. But that was just one game, and I worry that everyone has overreacted too much to it.

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