Jalen Hurts took ownership after the Philadelphia Eagles crashed to a poor 41-21 loss at NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.

Quarterback Hurts completed 25 of 39 passes for 326 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, adding 35 yards from nine carries on the ground.

Much of his production, though, came with the game out of reach. The Cowboys led 27-7 just a minute into the second half when Trevon Diggs intercepted Hurts for a pick-six and the Eagles ultimately fell to 1-2.

"I didn't execute and I didn't do a good enough job of leading," said second-year pro Hurts after the game. 

"I didn't do a good enough job of running our offense and doing the things that I need to do. This one is on me.

"I like to see me play better, that is something I can control. I'll learn from this.

"I learn from it and move on. I take responsibility for how this game went. I'm learning from it and we're gonna be a better team from it. I believe that."

The Eagles now have a short week before a difficult home game on Sunday with the Kansas City Chiefs.

They will face Patrick Mahomes and a Chiefs team who have the same record, reeling with a point to prove after losing consecutive games to the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers.

"We're on a short week and no one's going to feel sorry for us," added Eagles coach Nick Sirianni.

"The Chiefs aren't going to feel sorry for us. We got to rest our bodies, get our bodies right.

"We're going to have to watch this tape on the way home, get the corrections to our guys written down, and they're going to have to look at them on their own because we're going to have to be moving on to the Chiefs really quick."

While Hurts led an impressive offensive showing in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles are yet to get much production from their pass-catchers.

Quez Watkins – who has caught all seven of his targets for 186 yards – is the Eagles' receiving yards leader but that total is good enough for just 37th in the NFL through three weeks.

Dak Prescott loved his home return with the Dallas Cowboys on Monday and felt his three-touchdown display continued a career-best run of form.

Quarterback Prescott sustained a compound fracture and dislocation to his right ankle in Week 5 in 2020, keeping him out of the rest of the year.

The two-time Pro Bowler had been setting a record-breaking pace, his 1,690 passing yards through four weeks comfortably the most by any player over the same period since 1960 – although the Cowboys went 1-3.

Fit again for the start of this season and now tied to a four-year, $160million contract, Prescott has returned in similarly impressive fashion.

His 403 passing yards and three TDs in the curtain-raiser against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came in a losing effort, but a slightly more modest Week 2 performance contributed to victory against the Los Angeles Chargers.

On Monday, against NFC East rivals the Philadelphia Eagles, Prescott completed 21 of 26 passes for 238 yards, three scores and no interceptions in a 41-21 win he described as "definitely special", in front of home support for the first time since his injury.

The 28-year-old's primitive passer rating for the year is at a career-high 110.1, and he feels he is reaching new heights in 2021.

"I said it earlier in the year, and I'll say it again: I think just getting hurt last year and having to sit back and watch football, [he gained] a different perspective and just different ways people play this game," Prescott said.

"Going back, the experience obviously has helped but just studying and preparing myself and then all the work that I've put in just to get back healthy, not only the leg but the shoulder... I feel like I'm playing the best I've ever played."

Dallas now lead the division with a 2-1 record, and coach Mike McCarthy feels Prescott is benefiting from leading a more competitive team this year.

While the QB has completed at least 80 per cent of his passes in the past two games (85.2 versus the Chargers, 80.8 against the Eagles), the Cowboys have also put up more than 150 rushing yards on each occasion (198 and 160).

Ezekiel Elliott has run for three TDs across those games, while Dallas' 139.3 rushing yards per game across the year rank fourth in the NFL.

The last team to complete 80 per cent of their passes and rush for 150 yards in consecutive games were the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, led by Joe Montana.

McCarthy said: "I think [Prescott] is clearly playing better now [than last year], in my opinion.

"Last year, we were in track meets. This is a clearly a different football team than last year. You're seeing three games where I felt like we've been very complementary both on offense and defense.

"He's doing a lot in the run game as far as handling the checks and things like that. Yeah, I feel like he's playing better this year than last."

Dak Prescott praised the resilience of the Dallas Cowboys after the overcame the Los Angeles Chargers 20-17 in the NFL on Sunday.

Staring down the possibility of a second consecutive heart-breaking road defeat to start the season, the Cowboys showed their determination in Week 2.

That was the message from star quarterback Prescott after Greg Zuerlein's 56-yard field as time expired gave the Cowboys victory over the Chargers. 

After watching Tom Brady march Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers down the field in the final minute to set up a game-winning kick in the season opener, the Cowboys' defence got the job done in the second half against the Chargers.

An 11-play Chargers drive in the third quarter ended with a Damontae Kazee interception of Justin Herbert in the end zone, four plays after an apparent Herbert TD pass was called back due to a holding penalty. 

It was more of the same on a 12-play Los Angeles drive that consumed much of the fourth quarter, as Herbert and the Chargers reached the Dallas two-yard line before having a touchdown negated due to an illegal shift.

Two plays later, Micah Parsons sacked Herbert for an 18-yard loss and the home side had to settle for a game-tying field goal from Tristan Vizcaino rather than a go-ahead touchdown. 

To Prescott, those two stands were indicative of a team determined to stick together. 

"We're resilient, we're gonna fight, we're always in the fight," Prescott told CBS. "I think tonight we showed our brotherhood, we trusted each other, we played complementary football.

"Defence came up with a great turnover there in the red zone and we finished off with a win."

Zuerlein saw to that with his booming 56-yarder, which Prescott "had all faith" the veteran kicker would make. 

More important over the course of the game was a revived Dallas rushing attack after the team ran just 18 times for 60 yards at Tampa Bay. 

The Cowboys more than tripled that yardage total on Sunday, going for 198 on 31 carries as Tony Pollard ran for 109 yards while averaging 8.4 per rush and Ezekiel Elliott piled up 71 yards, with both backs finding the end zone. 

"It started with the offensive line," Prescott said. "They came out and they set the tone, they were physical. That allowed both of those backs to get going. Those guys hit the holes and just allowed us to be balanced.

"That's what we said, after last game -- we're gonna do whatever it takes to win, whether it's throwing a lot, run and a lot or be balanced. Tonight, it took all of that to get it done."

Kyler Murray's magic touch and a stunning field goal miss at the death gave the Arizona Cardinals a 34-33 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

While Murray's latest series of highlight-reel plays were the talk of the game, the Vikings had a chance to win it on the final play as Greg Joseph set up for a 37-yard field goal. 

But Joseph, who had hit twice from 52 yards earlier in the game, sent his kick wide right to set off a wild celebration in Arizona as the Cardinals remained unbeaten. 

Arizona had trailed 20-7 midway through the second quarter after three Kirk Cousins touchdown passes, but Murray took control of the game with his legs and his arm. 

The quarterback started the rally with a 12-yard touchdown run, then delivered a scrambling, 77-yard bomb to a wide-open Rondale Moore less than two minutes later to give the Cardinals the lead. 

Nick Vigil picked off Murray on the second play of the second half and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown, but the Cardinals star marched his team right back down the field and hit A.J. Green as Arizona went back on top. 

After the teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had a chance to win it on Joseph's leg, but it was not to be.

Murray completed 29 of 36 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns as he got the better of Kirk Cousins, who was 22 of 32 for 244 yards and three TDs. Minnesota's Dalvin Cook had 22 carries for 131 yards. 

 

Cowboys edge Chargers on last-second field goal

Greg Zuerlein's 56-yard field goal as time expired gave the Dallas Cowboys a 20-17 victory at the Los Angeles Chargers. 

It was a welcome bounceback for the Cowboys after their season-opening defeat at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it came with a starring role for a surprising player. 

Tony Pollard carried just three times for 14 yards in the opener but exploded for 109 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against the Chargers. 

Ezekiel Elliott added 71 yards and a score on the ground while Dak Prescott completed 23 of 27 passes for 237 yards. 

After 2020, in which injuries and poor defensive play doomed Dallas to another season without playoff football, the Cowboys are already dealing with significant losses on both sides of the ball in 2021. 

Wide receiver Michael Gallup is on injured reserve and out until at least October because of a calf issue, but a more impactful injury came in practice this week as defensive end Demarcus Lawrence suffered a broken foot. 

Lawrence has since had surgery and will be sidelined for six to eight weeks, robbing the Cowboys of one of the more versatile defensive ends in the NFL. 

Last season, Lawrence was the only edge defender in the NFL with a pressure rate of at least 20 per cent to cross that same threshold in terms of run disruptions. Lawrence's pressure rate was 20.1 per cent in 2020, when he disrupted a run 22.7 per cent of the time. 

His absence leaves a massive void for a defense that gave up the 10th-most yards per play (5.87) last year and conceded 6.73 per play to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their thrilling Week 1 loss. 

The NFL is an offensive league and the evidence from Week 1, which saw Dallas rack up 451 net yards on Dak Prescott's return, indicates the Cowboys have the firepower to compete in the NFC. 

But without Lawrence making a huge impact against both the run and the pass, can the defense do enough to make sure that impressive offensive production is not wasted, as was the case when Prescott was healthy? 

Lawrence's potential replacements

With Randy Gregory on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the options immediately behind Lawrence on the depth chart are not particularly intriguing ones. 

Former Indianapolis Colts third-round pick Tarell Basham has just 7.5 sacks in his career and his pressure rate of 14.9 per cent for the New York Jets last season was below the average for edge rushers (16 per cent). 

Should the Cowboys stick to their depth chart, he will likely split time with Bradlee Anae, who played in only three games in his rookie year before featuring on 10 snaps against the Buccaneers. 

Though not the most impressive athlete for the position, Anae did produce during his time in college with Utah, his 2019 pressure rate of 21.4 per cent third among edge rushers with at least 100 snaps in the Pac-12. 

But for a player of such limited experience to step into Lawrence's shoes is a tall ask, and the Cowboys may need to shuffle the personnel to be effective without arguably their premier defensive player. 

The Parsons project

First-round pick Micah Parsons is already drawing significant praise one game into his NFL career, already looking like the player best placed to challenge Lawrence for the title of Dallas' top defensive star. 

Yet the Cowboys have depth at linebacker with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith also in the mix at the spot, leaving some to question whether Parsons could be deployed more frequently on the edge in Lawrence's absence. 

Dallas experimented with Parsons in a designated pass rusher role in the offseason and he had the chance to soak up some knowledge from Lawrence during his preparations for his rookie year. 

"Last week we were watching film of pass rush and D-Law came up to me and was like, 'You pass rush like that, rook?'" Parsons said back in June. 

"I was like, 'Yeah, I used to be a defensive end.' He was like, 'All right, tap in with me.' Me and him have been getting closer." 

And the Cowboys may be very tempted to use Parsons off the edge, the ex-Nittany Lion having prospered in that role across a small sample size in 2019. 

In 33 edge snaps for Penn State two seasons ago, he registered a pressure rate of 24 per cent and a run disruption rate of 23.5 per cent, comfortably above the averages of 14.6 per cent and 8 per cent for those respective metrics for Power 5 players with at least 50 edge snaps. 

To make the decision to ask Parsons to deliver similar production in the pros on a more consistent basis is a risky move, one that could backfire in two different areas if the rookie cannot rise to the challenge and Vander Esch and Smith prove ineffective at linebacker. 

However, given the depth of talent the Cowboys have on offense, it is a gamble they may have the wiggle room to take. 

Maintaining offensive pace

The Cowboys' offensive performance in Week 1 was a spectacular continuation of what Dallas had going for the opening four weeks on that side of the ball in 2020 before Prescott was lost for the season. 

Dallas put up 509.5 net yards per game between Weeks 1 and 4 last year and their efforts against Tampa hinted they can again operate at a similar pace. 

Their hopes of doing so will be aided by their upcoming schedule. Having hung over 400 net yards on a defense that was sixth best in the NFL in yards per play allowed (5.12) in the opener, the Cowboys should be confident of doing similar to the opponents on the horizon. 

Using the most optimistic timescale, Lawrence could be back to face the Denver Broncos on November 7. 

Of the six defenses the Cowboys will face before that game, only the New York Giants (9th) finished in the top 10 in yards per play allowed. The Giants gave up 30 points to Taylor Heinicke and the Washington Football Team on Thursday. 

History suggests the Cowboys should succeed moving the ball and scoring points consistently in the coming weeks, meaning the defense is unlikely to be in a position where it has to put the team on its back. 

Prescott and the offense producing at early 2020 levels can help the Cowboys as they look to remain in a position to emerge from the NFC East without Lawrence at their disposal on defense. 

And, when Gregory returns, if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can harness the best out of him as well as Basham and Anae while intelligently using Parsons' pass-rushing prowess to an extent that does not have a detrimental impact on the play at linebacker, then the Cowboys may be able to welcome Lawrence back while sitting in an excellent position to push for a first postseason berth since 2018. 

Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season threw up more questions than answers, but there remains no doubting Patrick Mahomes' outstanding talent.

In one of the highlights of the opening round of games, Mahomes threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to a comeback win over the Cleveland Browns.

All eyes will be on Mahomes again in Week 2, and the Chiefs have an intriguing matchup against fellow quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.

This battle between two of the past three MVPs has been one-sided in the past, though, as Stats Perform discovers in the most interesting facts from Sunday's biggest games.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Baltimore Ravens

The Chiefs will have few concerns about going on the road, boasting a 5-1 record against the Ravens in Baltimore all-time. They have also won each of the teams' past four meetings.

This dominance is reflected in Mahomes' record against Jackson, winning all three head-to-heads and averaging 378.7 passing yards per game to his opponent's 170.3.

Of course, Jackson is a greater threat across the ground than through the air, leading the Ravens in rushing yards against the Las Vegas Raiders last week for the 21st game of his career (including the postseason). In that time, no other QB has led his team in rushing in more than 12 games.

But even if Jackson can guide the Ravens into a lead, that brings no guarantee of victory. They gave up a 14-point lead for the first time in 99 games against the Raiders, while the Chiefs recovered from 12 points down at home to the Browns and actually have a 10-8 record after trailing by double digits since the start of 2018.

Dallas Cowboys @ Los Angeles Chargers

Another clash between two top QBs on Sunday sees Dak Prescott take the Cowboys to the Chargers having last week continued his impressive run even in defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Due to injury, Prescott has only actually played six games since the start of last year, but he has passed for at least 400 yards in four of them – no other player has more than two such games in that span.

However, Dallas have lost a league-high three games while posting 450-plus total net yards since the beginning of 2020.

The Chargers have their own prolific passer, too, in Justin Herbert, who threw for 337 yards in a win against the Washington Football Team in Week 1, meaning he now has 4,673 passing yards through 16 career games – a tally only topped by Mahomes' 5,100 in his first 16 games.

Buffalo Bills @ Miami Dolphins

Josh Allen is another elite passer who would hope to be in MVP contention at the end of the year, but he was less impressive in the Bills' opening defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, completing only 30 of 51 passes.

While that was a career high for pass attempts, NFL teams are 4-20 when having a QB throw 50 or more since the start of last season.

Allen at least has fond memories of facing Miami. In the first of the sides' two meetings last year, he threw for career bests in yards (415) and TD passes (four), while the second clash saw the Bills score 56 points – a tally they have only ever topped once, also against the Dolphins in 1966.

Buffalo have five straight wins against Miami, although the Dolphins are in form with 10 wins in 13 games after 10 victories in their prior 33.

Elsewhere...

New Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford will fancy his chances against the Indianapolis Colts. His passer rating of 156.1 in Week 1 led the league, but Russell Wilson, against the Colts, was second with 152.3. Stafford threw three TD passes, including two of more than 50 yards – a feat only previously achieved once by a player in their first game with the team in the Super Bowl era (John Stofa for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968).

Jameis Winston took a slightly less spectacular route to his five TD passes last time out, with 148 passing yards the fewest from a QB to throw five for five scores.

Meanwhile, first overall pick Trevor Lawrence threw for 332 yards, the most by a player on his debut since Cam Newton's 422 yards in 2011, but he also had three interceptions – something he never did in his 40 games at Clemson.

Each of the first-round rookie QBs will be aiming to build on feats of some manner, with 21-year-old Trey Lance the youngest player in the Super Bowl era to throw a touchdown on his first NFL pass.

Mac Jones, who this week faces Zach Wilson, threw for 281 yards – the most by a New England Patriots rookie on debut.

If the opener is any evidence, the 2021 NFL season is set to be a rollercoaster ride.

Defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged victorious from a frenetic encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, raising their Super Bowl LV title banner and then prevailing 31-29.

No team has won the Super Bowl in successive years since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did so in the 2004 season. He will aim to repeat the feat having led the Bucs to glory last year, but do they deserve their status as favourites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, or will the Kansas City Chiefs or another of their potential challengers stand triumphant in Los Angeles come February?

With a jam-packed first Sunday of the campaign on the horizon, Stats Perform's panel of experts make their predictions for what promises to be a fascinating season.

Nicholas McGee: Shanahan puts his Super Bowl curse to bed

AFC Champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Champion: San Francisco 49ers
MVP: Tom Brady

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has endured his fair share of Super Bowl heartbreak, receiving criticism after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator and in the wake of the Niners' fourth-quarter collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV two seasons ago.

But the roster Shanahan has at his disposal is one primed to contend to go deep into the postseason again. Nick Bosa leads an extremely deep defensive line that has the talent to take over games while the offense is flush with playmakers. The question is when dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the draft, will be ready to win the starting quarterback job from Jimmy Garoppolo.

With Lance adding another element to the rushing offense, a ground attack that ranked second in yards per game in 2019 has the potential to become a near-unstoppable force and lay the foundation for Shanahan to finally get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

In Tampa, Brady looks to be somehow getting stronger with age and, if that continues throughout the campaign and the Bucs are contending to repeat as champions, it will be difficult to look past him for MVP. With pass rushers that can overwhelm opponents and a diverse rushing attack, the 49ers have a potential formula to dictate a game against Tampa and end Brady's hopes of an eighth title.

The Browns have a strong case for the top running game in the NFL going into the season. An excellent supporting cast for Baker Mayfield and a superb offensive line means the 2018 number one overall pick has everything he needs to push Cleveland to a deep postseason run. On defense, the Browns have made astute additions at linebacker and in the secondary and boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. Yet in a matchup between their head coach Kevin Stefanski and Shanahan, the nod has to go to the league's pre-eminent play-caller.

Rob Lancaster: Dak is back, and so are the Cowboys as an NFC force!

AFC Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Dak Prescott

How 'bout them Cowboys! The call may be brave, but the NFC has not seen a back-to-back champion since the Seahawks in 2014 and Dallas' performance in the opener was one of a team that should not only be favourite for their NFC East division but also contend for a conference title they will see as long overdue.

The Cowboys piled up points when Dak Prescott was healthy, though they didn't equate to wins. His 403 passing yards and three touchdowns were also not enough against the Bucs, but they should serve to allay concerns over the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season or the shoulder issue that overshadowed his preseason and boost hopes he can perform at a level that helped Dallas average 509.5 net yards per game in the first four weeks of the previous campaign.

The key to Dallas realising their potential is the defense, where the Cowboys hope the presence of Dan Quinn as coordinator should help see vast improvements. The early signs were promising against Tampa Bay as a team that allowed 2,541 rushing yards last year gave up only 52 to the Buccaneers on Thursday. If they can become even an average defense this season and get the best out of Prescott, that is a recipe for a Super Bowl challenge. 

As for the Chiefs, a Super Bowl defeat is one thing, but they were embarrassed by the Bucs. The response has been to improve the offensive line, making sure Patrick Mahomes has time to work his magic. Not only will they get back to the big game, this time they will triumph, dashing Jerry Jones' dream of hosting a title parade in Texas.

Chris Myson: Never bet against Brady

AFC champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP: Tom Brady

The Buccaneers took time to find their groove last season, understandably given Brady moved to a new offense after 20 years in New England as the team coped with a disrupted preseason. A roster with few obvious holes put it all together down the stretch, a feat that became more remarkable when it later emerged the ageless Brady – whose 40 passing touchdowns was the second-highest total of his remarkable career – played the whole season with a torn MCL.

After the Bucs incredibly found a way to ensure they will return all 22 starters, their head coach and both coordinators, it would be brave to bet against them at least coming close to a repeat with a fit and firing Brady showing just how comfortable he now he is in Tampa by throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with two interceptions, and leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys.

The Browns, in their second year with impressive offensive mind Stefanski, continue to draft and recruit wisely under GM Andrew Berry. With star wideout Odell Beckham Jr returning from injury with a point to prove, Mayfield poised for a career year and a formidable rushing attack already in place, they will relish another shot at the Chiefs after pushing them all the way in a 22-17 Divisional Round defeat.

Ben Spratt: Watch out, Peyton – Mahomes is coming for your record!

AFC champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC champion: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs may well have been entering this season as two-time reigning champions if not for an awful Super Bowl showing from their offensive line, which allowed superstar quarterback Mahomes to be pressured 33 times by the Buccaneers.

Kansas City addressed that issue in the offseason and will hope they have now found a fix. Effective pass protection should take the Chiefs all the way and mean an outstanding regular season for Mahomes, who might even fancy a shot at Peyton Manning's single-season record of 55 touchdowns with a 17th game to play with.

That O-Line would face the ultimate test if the Rams also made the big game, however, tasked with keeping Aaron Donald away from Mahomes. It is an improvement to the Rams' own weakest element – their QB, with Matthew Stafford in for Jared Goff – that figures to bring them into contention to emerge from the NFC as they did in the 2018 season.

Tom Brady was grateful for Ryan Succop's last-gasp field goal as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the 2021 NFL season with a dramatic win over the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bucs' Super Bowl defence looked set to begin with a loss as they trailed 29-28 with seven seconds remaining in Thursday's opening-night thriller at Raymond Jones Stadium.

But inspired by seven-time Super Bowl winner Brady, the hosts edged a see-saw battle 31-29 thanks to Succop's game-winning kick in the dying seconds.

After surviving a scare against the Cowboys, Brady accepts there is plenty of work for his side to do.

"The margin of error is thin in the NFL," he said. "One or two plays, it's always that's the way the game goes. Fortunately, we found a way to win. 

"I'm really happy Ryan and the field goal team made that really clutch kick there at the end. That was great to see. But as a team, we all know we've got to get back to work.

"We won, it's great, but we know that it was far from perfect and we have to get back to work and clean a lot of stuff up."

Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards against the Cowboys and passed Drew Brees for most career passing touchdowns in season openers in NFL history with 43.

Cowboys counterpart Dak Prescott, making his comeback from a long lay-off, was 42-for-58 passing, with 403 yards, three TDs and one interception.

Prescott has now had 400-plus yards in four games since the start of last season – the most by any player in the NFL.

But from the Bucs' perspective, it was far from a vintage performance as they committed 11 penalties for 106 yards and converted just two of six third-down tries.

"We've got a lot a lot to learn," head coach Bruce Arians said. "I'm obviously not pleased with the start of the game, though I loved the finish. 

"Our guys are winning. They're going to finish and we're going to win, but we can play better and not put ourselves in that situation."

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won an opening-night thriller in the NFL, the Super Bowl champions overcoming the Dallas Cowboys 31-29 thanks to a field goal with two seconds remaining.

The Cowboys led 29-28 with seven seconds on the clock at Raymond Jones Stadium – the home of the Buccaneers and the scene of their Super Bowl LV triumph in February.

But after Brady led an 11-play, 57-yard drive, Ryan Succop stepped up to convert the last-gasp field goal as the Buccaneers opened the 2021 season with a win.

It was another memorable outing for seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady (43), who passed Drew Brees for most career passing touchdowns in season openers in NFL history.

Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions as the 44-year-old quarterback fuelled the Buccaneers.

Cowboys counterpart Dak Prescott – back on the field for the first time since his season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 of the 2020 season – was 42-for-58 passing, with 403 yards, three TDs and one interception.

Prescott has had 400-plus yards in four games since the start of last season – the most by any player in the NFL.

The Buccaneers and Cowboys traded touchdowns in the opening quarter – Brady finding Chris Godwin before Prescott's 22-yard pass was caught by CeeDee Lamb inside the final two minutes.

Brady and Rob Gronkowski connected for a touchdown as the Buccaneers reclaimed the lead and while Prescott's TD pass to Amari Cooper and a Greg Zuerlein field goal put Dallas ahead, Tampa Bay had the last say before half-time – Antonio Brown on the end of a 47-yard throw.

There was history made in the third quarter as Brady and Gronkowski combined for their 100th touchdown, the star pair joining Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (114) in the 100 club.

With his 22nd career game with multiple receiving TDs, Gronkowski broke a tie with Antonio Gates for most games by a tight end in the Super Bowl era and moved into a tie for sixth in any position.

Dallas only trailed 28-26 entering the final period thanks to Cooper's second TD and the visitors took the lead with just over a minute remaining via another Zuerlein field goal, but Succop and the Buccaneers were not to be denied.

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expecting Dak Prescott to be at his best as the Dallas Cowboys quarterback returns to action in Thursday's NFL season opener. 

Prescott did not play in the pre-season and has not seen live game action since suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle last October against the New York Giants. 

But Cowboys CEO and director of player personnel Stephen Jones said Tuesday that Prescott is "100 per cent ready to go" for the game and he has "total confidence in Dak and how he feels about what he can do for this football team." 

The defending Super Bowl champions are of similar mind, said Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians. 

"Knowing him [Prescott] personally like I do, there's no change in him, with the way he's gonna play," Arians told reporters. "He only knows one way how to play, and that's full-speed."

At full speed, Prescott is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the NFL. In his last full healthy season, 2019, Prescott led the NFL with 4,902 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, and added 277 yards and three more TDs running the ball. 

He was off to a similarly effective start before going down in Week 5 last season, completing 68 per cent of his passes for 1,856 yards with nine passing and three rushing touchdowns. 

The opposing quarterback Thursday, Tom Brady, can relate to returning from a serious leg injury. He spoke Tuesday of his mindset in coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the first quarter of the 2008 opener, an injury that cost him the rest of the season. 

"We kind of feel invincible at times, especially playing a really physical sport, but I think one thing about getting injured is we're not invincible," Brady said. "I think you have a different perspective when you come back.

"You're really disappointed when you lose games, but it's more disappointing when you don't get to play in games. I'd rather play and lose than not play at all, as crazy as that sounds. If you're not playing it just means you're at home.

"I remember that was a tough year just sitting, watching, watching all my teammates, and I made a pretty conscious decision I was gonna do everything I could at that point to stay healthy as I could my entire career."

Brady has, starting every game since the 2009 season opener aside from his four-game "Deflategate" suspension at the beginning of the 2016 season. 

As he prepares to begin his 22nd NFL season, Brady knows he and his team will need to out-play Prescott and the Cowboys to get off to the start they want. 

"[Prescott is] a really talented player," Brady said. "Really since the day he got in the league he's shown to be a great leader of the team, and you know we're just expecting him to play like that, like Dak Prescott does.

"He's very talented, moves in the pocket, throws a good ball, they've got a lot of talented skill players.

"So for us, offensively, we're gonna have to do a good job putting our defence in a good position, I don't think we can give any extra possessions.

"Turnovers will be a big factor, field position is going to be important. It's a big challenge for our team."

The Dallas Cowboys will be without All-Pro guard Zack Martin for their season opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following a positive coronavirus test.

Martin will subsequently be placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ruling him out of the meeting with the defending champions at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday.

Having seen their 2020 season hindered greatly by injuries, most notably to quarterback Dak Prescott – whose campaign was ended in Week 5 – but also to several members of their offensive line, the Cowboys will have been hoping for some continuity up front in 2021.

However, they will be minus the services of a four-time All-Pro in Martin, who played in only 10 games last year.

Of Martin, head coach Mike McCarthy, who confirmed Connor McGovern is the favourite to deputise, said: "He's frustrated, obviously, but this is the world that we live in.

"We will continue to work the combinations, but Connor McGovern will take the majority of the reps at right guard."

Martin's absence is a sizeable blow to a Dallas offensive line that must protect Prescott from a Buccaneers defense that pressured Patrick Mahomes 33 times in their Super Bowl LV win in February.

In his last full season in 2019, Martin conceded a pressure rate of 2.8 per cent that ranked third among all guards. That declined to 5.6 per cent last season, but Martin still performed well above the average (8.1 per cent) for his position, and McGovern (8.0 per cent) will need to improve if the Cowboys are to spoil Tampa Bay's Week 1 party.

Page 3 of 5
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.