TAMPA, Fla. — The “Tommy and Gronky” show with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski picked up right where it left off, with two touchdowns — or “tuddies,” as they call them — matching their two “tuddies” from Super Bowl LV in a riveting 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Kickoff Game on Thursday night.
Brady’s 11-yard, third-quarter strike to Gronkowski was the pair’s 100th touchdown connection together — the first time a quarterback and tight end have hooked up for 100 scores, putting them behind only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (114) for the most touchdown connections of all time.
“Tom made a great call,” Gronkowski said. “I think I was actually on a route, and then he checked me into blocking, then checked me into blocking and releasing. I was like, oh man, he just sees it all on the field, it’s impressive. He’s been playing for like 80 years, so he’s seen every defense and every player.”
But unlike in the Super Bowl, where Tampa Bay’s defense orchestrated a near shutout of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Buccaneers needed Brady and Gronkowski to carry them. The 44-year-old, starting his 300th career game, threw for 379 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, with Gronkowski accounting for 90 receiving yards and Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin both eclipsing 100 yards.
Brady also orchestrated an 11-play, 57-yard drive with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter to set up the winning field goal from 36 yards out by kicker Ryan Succop, marking the 40th fourth-quarter comeback of Brady’s career.
“There was no doubt that we were going to win the game. With him, it’s who is going to make plays?” coach Bruce Arians said of Brady. “Guys up front did a hell of a job protecting, and guys went and got open.”
“I was pretty certain we were going to have a chance,” said Succop, who was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list one week ago. “Obviously he is the greatest quarterback of all time, the greatest player of all time. He’s so calm, so collected. His poise — I think it permeates everybody, and everybody goes out and plays better because of him.”
Shutting down Ezekiel Elliott and rendering the Cowboys one-dimensional — the Buccaneers’ defense’s goal all week — meant quarterback Dak Prescott could showcase only his trio of talented wide receivers in Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper while throwing for 403 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Even in the absence of Cowboys center Zack Martin because of COVID-19 and having not played in the preseason while recovering from ankle and shoulder injuries, Prescott carved up the Buccaneers’ defense, rendering many of their blitzes ineffective.
To make matters worse, the Buccaneers lost starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting in the first quarter to a dislocated elbow, and the Cowboys chose to repeatedly pick on third cornerback Jamel Dean. The Buccaneers were also without starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who was held out of the game with a hamstring injury.
The Buccaneers made enough timely plays, despite the game nearly slipping away late in the fourth quarter when Godwin spun his way toward the end zone and coughed up the ball at the 2-yard line. That set up a drive by Dallas that ended with a 48-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein to give the Cowboys a 29-28 lead with 1:29 to go.
But Godwin redeemed himself with a crucial 24-yard sideline grab with 24 seconds left, setting up Succop’s kick. Gronkowski contributed catches of 6 and 20 yards on the final drive as well.
“I learned a long time ago that you don’t learn anything more from losing than you do from almost losing,” Arians said. “We have a lot to learn. Obviously, not pleased with the start of the game. Loved the finish. Our guys are winners. They’re going to finish and they’re going to win, but we can play better and not put ourselves in that situation. Obviously, there’s turnovers, penalties, things we can improve on, but our guys fought and won the game.”
Tampa Bay’s win improved Super Bowl champions to 38-16-1 all time in season openers.