What a way to start the 2021 NFL season.
Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers eked out a 31-29 victory over the visiting Dallas Cowboys on Thursday with a field goal in the final seconds. From seven combined passing touchdowns to late lead changes to a “that’s it?” banner reveal, there was a lot to unpack and enjoy from Thursday’s season opener.
The NFL introduced its annual Kickoff game in 2002 as a new way to get the season started. Typically scheduled for the first Thursday after Labor Day, the league has opened its new campaign with an intriguing primetime matchup ahead of the first full Sunday of games. It has also marked the season opener for the defending Super Bowl champions each year since 2004, with the exception of a Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers game in 2019 to celebrate the NFL’s 100th year.
By bringing the previous season’s top team to get the new year started, fans have been treated to some excellent openers. Here are five of the best NFL Kickoff games (in chronological order) since the league started the tradition:
2004: Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
Manning-Brady V went just like the first four matchups: with Brady on top.
Peyton Manning and the Colts went to Gillette Stadium to face Brady and the Patriots to open the 2004 season. It was the first time the defending Super Bowl winners got to host the NFL Kickoff game, and it didn’t disappoint.
The Colts were up at halftime before Brady and Co. re-took the lead early in the third quarter. Down 27-24 on the Colts’ final drive, Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest sacked Manning, turning a 36-yard attempt for kicker Mike Vanderjagt into a 48-yarder. The kick went right as the Patriots were able to hang on 27-24 for their 16th straight win between the regular season and postseason.
The two squads met once again in the AFC divisional round, and once again the Patriots came out on top. It was Brady’s sixth straight victory to begin the long-storied rivalry with Manning and helped catapult the Patriots to their second straight championship.
2009: Tennessee Titans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers met in the only NFL Kickoff game to go to overtime.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers came in off their unforgettable Super Bowl XLIII win over the Arizona Cardinals. The Titans, meanwhile, were looking for redemption after a 13-3 season ended in the divisional round.
The season opener was a low-scoring affair, but it still had a thrilling highlight with Troy Polamalu’s jaw-dropping, left-handed interception on a deep ball from Kerry Collins. Jeff Reed, who tied the game with a 32-yard field goal with three minutes left in regulation, gave the Steelers a 13-10 win with a 33-yarder in overtime.
The game was one of the high points in an otherwise forgettable season for the Steelers, who went 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs. The Titans also missed the playoffs in 2009 after finishing with an 8-8 record.
2011: New Orleans Saints vs. Green Bay Packers
After winning three road playoff games en route to Super Bowl XLV, the Packers got to start their title defense at Lambeau Field against the New Orleans Saints. While the two quarterbacks owned the spotlight, it was the Packers’ defense that decided the game.
Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees put up three touchdowns apiece -- and they were just getting started. Rodgers went on to win his first career MVP in 2011, while Brees went on to set the single-season record for passing yards with 5,476.
Down eight points, the Saints needed a touchdown on the final play. The game was extended after Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was called for pass interference in the end zone, giving the Saints the ball at the 1-yard line. With no time left on the clock, Brees handed the ball off to rookie running back Mark Ingram, who was brought down by a swarm of Packers defenders to end the game at 42-34.
2013: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
Just nine months after the Baltimore Ravens miraculously beat the Denver Broncos on the road in the divisional round, the two teams met again in the Mile High City to kick off the 2013 season. The contest marked the only time in the Kickoff game’s history that the defending Super Bowl champions were on the road. The Ravens could not host the game in Baltimore since there was a schedule conflict with the Orioles, so Joe Flacco and Co. were left to begin their title defense in an opposing stadium.
The playoff loss must have left a bad taste in Manning’s mouth, because he was a man on a mission in the 2013 season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. He threw for an NFL-record-tying seven touchdown passes as his Broncos rolled past the Ravens by a score of 49-27.
It was just the start for Manning that year, too. He shattered the record for passing touchdowns in a season with 55 and led the Broncos to a Super Bowl XLVIII berth. Their season ended in stunning fashion as the Seattle Seahawks walloped the Broncos 43-8 at MetLife Stadium.
2021: Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady and the Bucs returned to the site of their Super Bowl 55 blowout -- their home field, Raymond James Stadium -- and were met with a much tighter contest to open the 2021 season.
Brady struck first with a touchdown pass to Chris Godwin, and it was just the start of an excellent night for both starting quarterbacks. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys were firing on all cylinders in the passing game, as the Dallas signal caller amassed 403 passing yards and three touchdowns on 58 attempts.
Dallas took a lead with under two minutes to go thanks to a 48-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein, who missed three kicks throughout the contest. The 1:29 left on the clock might as well have been 10:29 for Brady, as he led the Bucs right down the field and into field goal range. His final completion was a 24-yard dime to Godwin in a play that maybe (probably?) could have been called back for offensive pass interference.
Alas, Ryan Succop nailed a 36-yard field goal with two seconds left to give Brady his fourth career NFL Kickoff game victory.