The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will kick off the new NFL season against the Dallas Cowboys on September 9, while Sam Darnold is to be quickly reunited with the New York Jets.

Ahead of the full schedule release later on Wednesday, the Week 1 slate was confirmed with Tom Brady's Bucs the highlight.

After winning the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs last season, seven-time champion Brady is in the Thursday night game against the Cowboys in Tampa.

The Bucs have brought back the entirety of their title-winning team and face a Dallas outfit aiming to improve on an awful 2020 after signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.

Elsewhere, quarterback Darnold will make his Carolina Panthers debut against the Jets team he left this offseason.

In three miserable years in New York, Darnold threw for 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions across 38 games with a 59.8 completion percentage – the third-worst rate in the league over this period.

The former third overall pick was traded to the Panthers last month for a sixth-round pick this year and a second and fourth-rounders in 2022, with the Jets then using the second selection in 2021 to take Zach Wilson.

Among Wilson's fellow first-round QBs, Mac Jones could potentially make his bow against the man he succeeded at Alabama.

Jones, who is competing for the starting spot on the New England Patriots with Cam Newton, will hope to face Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins in a big AFC East matchup.

Trevor Lawrence is likely to go straight into the Jacksonville Jaguars team against the Houston Texans, while Trey Lance will hope to get his chance under center for the San Francisco 49ers at the Detroit Lions and Justin Fields for the Chicago Bears at the Los Angeles Rams in the late Sunday game.

The NFL also confirmed Wilson and Lawrence would be in line for appearances in the London games in October, with the Jets facing the Atlanta Falcons and the Jaguars taking on the Dolphins on consecutive weekends.

Another of the more intriguing Week 1 games sees the Green Bay Packers travel to the New Orleans Saints.

As the Saints begin the post-Drew Brees era, the Packers will hope wantaway MVP Aaron Rodgers is still on the team and able to improve his 3-2 career record as a starter against New Orleans.

The Seattle Seahawks, who have kept hold of Russell Wilson, face the Indianapolis Colts, and Patrick Mahomes' latest title tilt sees the Kansas City Chiefs host the Cleveland Browns.

Mahomes went down with a toe injury and then a concussion in an epic Chiefs win over the Browns in the 2020 postseason, with 35-year-old backup Chad Henne making his playoff debut and having a pick and a sack but completing six of eight passes to complete the job.

In the first Monday Night Football of the season, Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens will go to the Las Vegas Raiders.


Week 1 schedule in full:

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Sep 9, 8:20pm ET
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
New York Jets at Carolina Panthers – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Los Angeles Chargers at Washington Football Team – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
San Francisco 49ers at Detroit Lions – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Arizona Cardinals at Tennessee Titans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans – Sep 12, 1:00pm ET
Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Sep 12, 4:25pm ET
Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams – Sep 12, 8:20pm ET
Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders – Sep 13, 8:15pm ET

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule is excited about the potential of Sam Darnold after the franchise picked up the quarterback's fifth-year option.

The Panthers completed a trade with the New York Jets to acquire Darnold at the start of April, giving up a sixth-round pick in this year's draft and a second and fourth-rounder in 2022.

Selected third overall by the Jets in 2018, Darnold has thrown for 8,097 yards with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions in his first three seasons in the NFL.

He has not played all 16 games in any campaign so far, but he is set to be the new starter for Carolina after Teddy Bridgewater was traded to the Denver Broncos.

The Panthers did not opt to take a quarterback with the 10th pick in the first round of the draft either, despite both Justin Fields and Mac Jones still being available.

"I'm not going to talk about other players; we brought Sam here for a reason," Rhule said. "We're excited to see what he can do. We're excited to give him an opportunity.

"We traded for him because we believe in his potential."

Darnold averaged just 6.07 yards per attempt in his 12 starts in 2020, with only three other quarterbacks posting a lower number in that category.

He had nine touchdown passes compared to 11 interceptions as the Jets went 2-14 to gain the second pick in the draft. They used that to take a new starting quarterback on Thursday, choosing BYU prospect Zach Wilson.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have also picked up the contract option on wide receiver DJ Moore, guaranteeing his deal through the 2022 season.

The Carolina Panthers traded quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the Denver Broncos in return for a sixth-round draft pick on Wednesday.

Carolina allowed Bridgewater to depart after landing New York Jets signal-caller Sam Darnold earlier this month.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the Panthers will pay Bridgewater $7million, while he is said to be set to receive $3m from the Broncos.

Bridgewater spent just one season with the Panthers, completing 69.1 per cent of his passes for 3,733 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 15 starts.

The 28-year-old rushed for 279 yards and five touchdowns in the 2020 campaign.

Denver could reportedly still be in the market for another QB in Thursday's NFL Draft, despite also having Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Jeff Driskel on the roster.

Lock started 13 games for the Broncos last year, completing 57.3 per cent of his passes for 2,933 yards, 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Broncos general manager George Paton said: "Acquiring Teddy Bridgewater adds competition, experience and a strong veteran presence to our quarterback room.

"He's a talented player and leader who's had success in this league in a number of different situations. Being familiar with Teddy from Minnesota, he's going to compete and do everything he can to help us win."

 

The New York Jets are officially moving on from Sam Darnold, trading the 23-year-old quarterback to the Carolina Panthers on Monday. 

The Panthers are sending the Jets three draft picks – a sixth-rounder this year, plus second and fourth round selections in 2022. 

New York has the second overall pick in the April 29 draft, and will almost certainly nab a quarterback with hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after Darnold never lived up to expectations. 

The Jets moved up three spots to select Darnold with the third pick of the 2018 draft, but the former USC star struggled with consistency at the pro level. 

In 38 career starts for the Jets, he went 13-25 while throwing for 45 touchdown passes and 39 interceptions with a 59.8 completion percentage and a 78.6 quarterback rating. 

He had some encouraging performances – but not nearly enough, with only four 300-yard passing games. He threw for fewer than 200 yards in exactly half of his 38 starts, and only had 13 games with multiple TD passes. 

This past season was especially disappointing, with more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (nine) while averaging 184.0 passing yards per game with a 72.7 passer rating – the worst among the 36 QBs with a minimum of 200 pass attempts. 

While Darnold can be blamed for some of New York’s offensive struggles, he wasn’t surrounded by many star players. The Jets, who have had two head coaches and two different offensive systems in Darnold’s three years with the team, haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2015 (Chris Ivory) – the same season the franchise last had a 1,000-yard receiver (Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker). 

The offensive line has also been shaky, as Darnold was sacked on 8.8 per cent of passing plays last season, the third-worst mark in the league among QBs with at least 200 attempts. 

Darnold now joins a Panthers team that has Teddy Bridgewater, who has two years remaining on a three-year, $63 million contract he signed in 2020. 

Bridgewater had 15 TD passes and 11 interceptions in going 4-11 as a starter last season for Carolina.

Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel is expected to sign with the Washington Football Team.

According to ESPN and NFL Network on Wednesday, Samuel is signing a three-year contract worth $34.5million in Washington.

Samuel will reunite with Washington head coach Ron Rivera, who coached the 24-year-old during his first three seasons in Carolina.

A second-round draft pick in 2017, Samuel had a career-best 77 catches for 851 yards and 41 rushes for 200 yards last season as the Panthers (5-11) missed the playoffs.

In 53 career games Samuel has 185 receptions for 2,087 yards and 14 touchdown receptions and 478 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.

Washington (7-9) topped the NFC East in 2020, but lost to eventual Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers n the Wild Card Round.

Rebuilds require patience and a willingness to accept growing pains and, initially, quite a lot of losing.

The Carolina Panthers experienced a lot of that in 2020 but, such was their competitiveness in their first year under Matt Rhule, the franchise now appears ready to accelerate the timeline.

Carolina went 5-11 but a 3-2 start and a lack of blowout defeats fostered hope they can soon be back in postseason contention.

Where do they need to improve to make that ambition a reality?

We reflect on their campaign using Stats Perform data and looked ahead to a pivotal offseason that will go a long way to determining whether they will be back in the playoff mix in 2021.


Offense

After ending the Cam Newton era, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to be a placeholder at the quarterback position. 

Reports suggest the Panthers may view his job as the bridge quarterback as being completed, as they are seemingly looking to a potentially more exciting future under center. 

That is not surprising given how limited the Panthers' passing attack was in 2020. 

Only two teams had fewer touchdown passes than Carolina's 16, with Bridgewater completing only 41 per cent of his attempts of 21 air yards or more for three touchdowns and five interceptions. 

Bridgewater was a quarterback more reliant on his receivers' abilities after the catch than his arm strength. The Panthers had 4,129 gross passing yards and 50.7 per cent of that tally was made up of yardage after the catch, well above the league average of 45.6. 

That is not necessarily a criticism in an NFL where several teams rely heavily on short passing games that focus on the strengths of their receivers in the open field, but it is evident through the lack of downfield success that the Panthers need a more dynamic quarterback if they are to contend. 

Carolina lost eight games by one score in 2020, with Bridgewater failing to author a single game-winning drive. 

He threw one touchdown to three interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, further illustrating the need for the Panthers to find a more physically gifted quarterback who can make the clutch throws in the waning moments. 

Of course, the Panthers might have been more successful in that regard had Christian McCaffrey been available for more than three games. 

Bereft of the talents of a running back who led the league in scrimmage yards and touchdowns in 2019, the Panthers were 21st in rushing yards per game. 

They actually slightly improved in terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, recording 47 to the 45 they registered in 2019. However, with Carolina's 64 scoring drives ranked 23rd in the NFL, the Panthers evidently gave defenses little to fear in 2020. 

That has to change if they are to make the second-year leap under Rhule.

Defense

The Panthers spent every pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on defense and, at least in terms of their pass defense, that decision paid dividends. 

Carolina allowed 6.23 yards per pass play, the 12th-best average in the NFL, but the Panthers were dragged down by a below-par run defense. 

Indeed, the Panthers gave up 4.75 yards per rush, with just four teams faring worse than Carolina in that regard. 

And, while teams did not move the ball efficiently through the air against Carolina, the Panthers struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone. 

Of the 161 opponent drives versus the Panthers, 74 resulted in either a touchdown or a field goal, giving Carolina an opponent scoring efficiency of 46.0 that ranked 27th in the NFL. 

Yet this youthful unit still showed enough for Rhule and the Panthers to be encouraged going into 2021. 

Carolina finished 2020 tied-10th in takeaways with 22, third-round pick Jeremy Chinn contributing three of those in an impressive rookie season from the versatile safety. 

The expected development from him and first-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown provides reason for optimism, though the onus will be on Brown and edge rusher Brian Burns to do more to pressure the quarterback after the Panthers recorded 29 sacks in 2020, only good enough for tied-23rd in the NFL. 

This inexperienced group was asked to do too much by the offense last season but, if the likes of Chinn, Brown and Burns make the anticipated strides, the defense will have a much better chance of winning games for the Panthers in 2021.

Offseason

It's all about the quarterback in Carolina. After reportedly making an offer to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams, the Panthers are expected to aggressively pursue a deal with the Houston Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. 

With the young core they have, the Panthers would instantly become playoff contenders with Watson under center. Failing that, Carolina stands out as a likely destination for one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance in the draft. 

Regardless of whether it is Watson or one of that group of rookies under center in 2021, the Panthers will also need to reinforce their offensive line. 

Both starting tackles from last season, Russell Okung and Taylor Moton, are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. 

Thankfully, the Panthers are in a decent position to re-sign free agents and pursue those from other teams. They will be nearly $40million under an assumed salary cap of $185m. 

Having gotten little production from the position last season, tight end should be an area the Panthers look to address. Ian Thomas led Carolina tight ends with just 145 receiving yards in 2020. 

The defense is not the finished article but, after focusing on that side of the ball last year, this offseason is one in which Carolina needs to load up on offense to help the Panthers make the next step.

The Green Bay Packers secured the NFC's top seed on Sunday, while Derrick Henry led the Tennessee Titans to the AFC South title.

Aaron Rodgers again powered the Packers, throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Chicago Bears.

Despite their loss, the Bears clinched a playoff spot, as did the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, Henry made history as the Titans won the AFC South, while the Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East.

 

RODGERS DOMINATES AGAIN AS PACKERS CLINCH TOP SEED

Rodgers completed 19 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four TDs in the Packers' 35-16 victory over the Bears.

The Packers quarterback connected for TDs with Robert Tonyan, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Dominique Dafney and Davante Adams.

Rodgers finished the regular season with 48 TD passes. Alongside Peyton Manning, they are the only players in NFL history with 45-plus TD passes in multiple seasons, according to NFL Research. They won the NFL MVP in each of the previous three instances.

While Green Bay finished with a 13-3 record, the 8-8 Bears also reached the playoffs.

 

HISTORY FOR HENRY AS TITANS WIN AFC SOUTH

The Titans claimed the AFC South for the first time since 2008 after a thrilling 41-38 win over the Houston Texans.

Henry became the eighth player in history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a single season.

He had 250 rushing yards and two TDs against the Texans. Of the eight players to achieve the feat, Henry was the only one who needed 200-plus yards in his last game to get there, according to Stats Perform.

A.J. Brown had 151 receiving yards, but the Titans needed Sam Sloman's 37-yard field goal as time expired to edge the Texans.

The Titans became the first team in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and 150-yard receiver in the same game.

 

WASHINGTON WIN NFC EAST AS COLTS, RAMS REACH PLAYOFFS

The Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East thanks to a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions as Washington (7-9) claimed the division.

The Colts (11-5) reached the playoffs thanks to a 28-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Los Angeles Rams (10-6) are also into the postseason after beating the Arizona Cardinals 18-7.

 

Week 17 scores:

Minnesota Vikings 37-35 Detroit Lions
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 44-27 Atlanta Falcons
New England Patriots 28-14 New York Jets
Buffalo Bills 56-26 Miami Dolphins
Cleveland Browns 24-22 Pittsburgh Steelers
New York Giants 23-19 Dallas Cowboys
Baltimore Ravens 38-3 Cincinnati Bengals
Indianapolis Colts 28-14 Jacksonville Jaguars
Tennessee Titans 41-38 Houston Texans
Los Angeles Rams 18-7 Arizona Cardinals
New Orleans Saints 33-7 Carolina Panthers
Green Bay Packers 35-16 Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Chargers 38-21 Kansas City Chiefs
Seattle Seahawks 26-23 San Francisco 49ers
Las Vegas Raiders 32-31 Denver Broncos
Washington Football Team 20-14 Philadelphia Eagles

Alvin Kamara will not be able to provide an encore to his six-touchdown performance on Christmas Day after the New Orleans Saints running back tested positive for COVID-19.

After receiving mixed test results earlier in the week, Kamara had his positive test confirmed Friday, and he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, making him ineligible to play in Sunday's regular season finale against the Carolina Panthers.

Kamara's status puts the Saints in a precarious position, needing a win and some help on Sunday to secure the NFC's number one seed and a first-round bye.

If New Orleans do not secure the top seed, they will play a Wild Card round game the following weekend, and Kamara's involvement in that game could be in doubt.

NFL rules state that Kamara could not return until 10 days after the collection of the specimen that produced a positive test. If the conclusive sample was collected on Thursday, Kamara would be eligible to return for a first-round playoff game a week on Sunday, January 10.

If the Saints were scheduled in one of the three Saturday game slots, Kamara would be forced to watch from the sidelines.

The fourth-year running back has logged career bests this season with 21 total touchdowns, 1688 yards from scrimmage and 83 receptions.

Kamara is placed on the shelf one week after an all-time performance on Christmas Day, rushing for 155 yards and a record-tying six touchdowns as the Saints routed the Minnesota Vikings 52-33.

The news of Kamara's positive tests came the same day that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers placed three defenders on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Inside linebacker Devin White, outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and defensive lineman Steve McLendon will all miss the Buccaneers' game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday as Tampa Bay jockey for better playoff positioning.

The Buccaneers did not disclose whether the players had tested positive for the virus or had been tagged in contact-tracing efforts.

White's nine sacks are second on the team this season, while Barrett's eight sacks rank third.  

The Green Bay Packers will hope to seal the top seed in the NFC when they face rivals the Chicago Bears, but the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks will be ready to pounce on any slip-up.

A tie on Sunday would be enough for the Packers to secure a first-round bye in the postseason, though they would also receive it regardless of their own result if the Seahawks fail to beat the San Francisco 49ers.

If the Seahawks are to head straight into the Divisional Round, they need to beat the 49ers and hope the Packers lose and the Saints fail to win against the Carolina Panthers.

New Orleans, meanwhile, need a victory over the Panthers to coincide with the Packers losing to the Bears and Seattle beating San Francisco.

Division titles are up for grabs in the AFC South and NFC East, with the Tennessee Titans and Washington Football Team looking to hold on and top their sections, while the Cleveland Browns will be aiming to reach the postseason for the first time since 2002 when they face a Pittsburgh Steelers side without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

 

FEATURED GAME

Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears – Sunday, 4.25pm

- This will be the third Week 17 meeting since 2010 for the long-time rivals, and the previous two were critical games. In the 2010 campaign, the Packers needed to beat the Bears at Lambeau Field to make the postseason; they won 10-3 and went on to win Super Bowl XLV. The teams met in Week 17 three years later in Chicago; the Packers' 33-28 success earned them the NFC North crown and eliminated the Bears. 

- A win over Chicago would secure the NFC's top seed for Green Bay – as well as a second consecutive 13-3 season. The Packers have posted back-to-back seasons of 13 or more wins only once, in 1996 and 1997 with Brett Favre at quarterback. In the Super Bowl era, only one team has had consecutive seasons with at least 13 victories and no Super Bowl appearance: the Saints of 2018 and 2019.

- Aaron Rodgers has 51 touchdown passes against the Bears in his regular-season career, second only to Favre's 60. Including the 2010 NFC Championship Game, Rodgers is 20-5 versus Chicago for an .800 winning percentage, the fourth highest by any QB versus a single opponent since 1950 (minimum 25 starts; postseason included).

OTHER KEY GAMES

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers – Sunday, 4.25pm

- Alvin Kamara rushed for six touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Day, tying the NFL record set by Ernie Nevers in 1929. Kamara's 58 scrimmage TDs rank as the third most by a player through his first four seasons all-time (Terrell Davis – 61, LaDainian Tomlinson – 60).

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers – Sunday, 4.25pm

- After hurting the Arizona Cardinals' postseason chances with a 20-12 win at State Farm Stadium on Saturday, the 49ers will hope to play spoiler for a second straight week. A win over Seattle on Sunday would give San Francisco a 4-2 record within the NFC West, which would be a division-best – even as they finish in last place.

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans – Sunday, 4.25pm

Tennessee will clinch its first AFC South title since 2008 with a win, or an Indianapolis Colts loss versus the Jacksonville Jaguars this week. A win over Houston would also tie the Titans franchise record for road wins in a season (currently 5-2: 6-2 in 1996, 2000, 2008).

Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts – Sunday, 4.25pm

Indianapolis and Jacksonville both have eight players with over 250 receiving yards this season, the only two teams in the NFL with as many. The Jaguars had never had eight players with 250 receiving yards in the same season before, while the Colts had it happen once before (2016, eight players). If they are to snatch the AFC South division title, Indianapolis need to win and hope Tennessee fail to match them, or tie and see the Titans lose.

Washington Football Team at Philadelphia Eagles - Sunday, 8.20pm

Washington have lost six of their past seven games against the Eagles, including three straight on the road. Their lone success came in Week 1 this year after they scored the final 27 points of the game and won 27-17. A tie would be enough for Washington to clinch the NFC East division title, as long as the Dallas Cowboys fail to beat the New York Giants.

ELSEWHERE…

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants – Sunday, 1.00pm

Daniel Jones has not thrown an interception in 162 consecutive pass attempts, the longest active streak in the NFL and the third-longest streak by a Giant in the past 30 seasons (Eli Manning – 176 in 2014, Phil Simms – 173 in 1993). To reach the playoffs, Dallas needs a win and for Washington not to match them, or a tie and a Washington loss. New York need a win and a Washington loss.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns – Sunday, 1.00pm

Nick Chubb is averaging 5.45 yards per carry this season and has run for 11 touchdowns. He is set to will become the second player in NFL history with 5.0+ yards per carry and 8+ rush TDs in three straight seasons, joining another Browns player in Leroy Kelly (1966-68). With a win or a Colts loss on Sunday, the Browns would snap their 17-season playoff drought, which is tied for the longest in the NFL since the merger (1970-86 Saints, 2000-16 Buffalo Bills).

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