Brady-to-Gronk Lights Familiar Spark in N.F.L.’s Return

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TAMPA, Fla. — The N.F.L. loves its quarterback duels, and Tom Brady and Dak Prescott attacked and riposted over and over on Thursday night. In the season opener, Brady, who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl title last season, and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who signed an eye-popping contract extension in the off-season, traded touchdowns in a compelling if sometimes sloppy game that was decided on the final drive.

The Buccaneers held on for a 31-29 victory as Brady and Prescott combined for 782 passing yards and seven touchdowns. Brady landed the last punch, leading the Buccaneers 57 yards downfield in less than 90 seconds so Ryan Succop could kick the winning field goal with two seconds left.

“There was no doubt we were going to go win that game” because Brady was at the helm, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said.

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But the final score and specific statistics were almost irrelevant to the pass-happy affair that swooned on big plays and miscues. The game was a reminder of the entertainment value of the N.F.L. and was welcomed by football fans who haven’t seen a game since the 2020 season that was distorted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The game also took place in the same stadium as the last game of last season, Super Bowl LV. The Buccaneers looked the same, too. They brought back all 22 of their starters to defend their title — a rarity in the free-agent era.

Attendance, which had been capped at 22,000 spectators for the title game, finally looked normal, too. Few fans wore masks, since they are no longer required there, and every seat in Raymond James Stadium was filled, in fulfillment of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s March promise. Back then, however, vaccination rates were rising nationwide and the number of infections was plummeting.

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Six months later, the Delta variant of the virus has turned into a delta for the N.F.L., just like the rest of the country.

“Our challenge right now, and it’s something we discuss with the ownership, is certainly that we are in a major surge,” Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, said last month. “It is no secret to any of you, nor is it a secret to any of us in medicine what the impact of the Delta variant is having. It is a very different disease in many ways.”

More than 90 percent of N.F.L. players and all coaches and staff are vaccinated, yet dozens of them have tested positive for Covid-19 since training camps opened in July. Some of the league’s biggest stars, including quarterbacks Carson Wentz of the Colts and Kirk Cousins of the Vikings, have declined to get vaccinated.

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“We’re certainly at more risk this year than we put ourselves in last year,” Brady told reporters this week. “I mean, just look at all the things that we’re doing differently from last year at this time. So I would definitely say the risk is up for everybody.”

The 65,000 fans sitting cheek-to-jowl at the game were happy to be back. They posed for photos near a Super Bowl LV metal sculpture in front of the stadium and downed beers by the replica pirate ship near the north end zone. But some said the pandemic still loomed large.

“It feels good to be vaccinated” and to be able to move more freely, said Winford Artis, a Buccaneers season-ticket holder who went to just two games last year. “But in the back of your head, you think of things because this is the new normal. But it feels better.”

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Brady and Prescott looked strong in their return from injuries. Brady, who repaired an injured knee in the off-season, looked comfortable in the pocket. He completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards and four scores.

Two of those touchdown passes were thrown to tight end Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s teammate for nine seasons in New England before the pair moved to Florida in 2020. They became only the second quarterback-receiver pair in league history to combine for 100 touchdowns, and their familiarity with each other was on display all evening.

Midway through the third quarter, the Buccaneers took over the ball at the Dallas 35-yard line after cornerback Carlton Davis intercepted Prescott. Brady found Gronkowski with a 20-yard strike on first down. Three plays later, Brady seemed to anticipate a Cowboys blitz, dropping back several steps to buy time, as Gronkowski bounced off Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and slipped untouched into the middle of the field. As if running a pick-and-roll play in basketball, Brady got the ball to Gronkowski on the fly and, a few strides later, the tight end was in the end zone.

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“It’s unbelievable, the chemistry they’ve had for a long time,” Arians said.

Prescott, who missed most of last season with a significant leg injury, completed 42 of 58 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns and one interception. Under pressure often, Prescott also ran four times but took only one sack from the vaunted Tampa Bay pass rush. Dallas largely abandoned the run, rushing for 60 total yards, 13 of which came from Prescott.

But Prescott and the Cowboys were unable to do much after recovering two turnovers deep in the Buccaneers’ half of the field. And Brady, who was recovering from a knee injury he played through last season, made the Cowboys pay for their mistakes, which included a pair of missed field goals from kicker Greg Zuerlein, who is recovering from an off-season back surgery.

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It was another fitting highlight for a league built on heaps of hyperbole.

That hyperbole has made the N.F.L.’s team owners loads of money. After losing $4 billion last year because of attendance restrictions, the league in May signed a 10-year deal with its biggest media partners worth more than $100 billion. It also added a 17th regular-season game, which will generate yet more revenue.

The N.F.L. will no doubt face hurdles as it navigates its expanded season through the persistent pandemic. But for one night, anyway, the N.F.L. felt normal again.

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