Tom Brady was frustrated by a host of aspects during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 34-24 defeat by the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday and is demanding they learn from their mistakes.

Both teams went into Week 3 of the NFL unbeaten this season and all eyes were on quarterbacks Brady and Matthew Stafford.

But unfortunately for Brady, it was Stafford who stole the show as he inspired a fine victory for the Rams over the Super Bowl champions.

Stafford threw four touchdowns to lead the Rams to a 3-0 start to the campaign, with the 2014 Pro Bowler also recording 27-of-38 for 343 yards and just one sack.

That haul of four TDs improved Stafford's season tally to nine, matching Hall of Famer Kurt Warner (1999) for the most by a Rams quarterback in the first three games of a season. Warner won the NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP that season.

Brady was coming off a five-touchdown performance, making him the fifth player all time to throw four or more touchdowns in each of his first two games of a season, but the 44-year-old was limited to just one against the Rams.

Although he did rush for a score, Brady finished with 41 of 55 for 432 yards and three sacks. While those passing yards were the most he has racked up in a game for Tampa, it only served to further highlight how he struggled to get the Bucs into the end zone.

Brady touched on that, accepting he threw more than should be necessary, but his struggles were seemingly indicative of collective issues.

"They [the Rams] played the kind of game they wanted to play," Brady said. "If we're going to beat a team like that, we have to play well in all phases.

"We've got to get some turnovers and we've got to keep protecting the football. We've got to start fast and get a lead, run the ball well, throw the ball well, play good defense, play good special teams. It all fits together when you play good teams.

"The throwing needs to be better, the all-around offense, the red area, [we must be] better on third down. We definitely had some opportunities to help the team win, but we didn't get it done.

"Those guys up front are trying to create space, and our backs are trying to run hard. But again, when you're losing all day, you're going to get into more throwing than we probably want.

"It's just not a great complementary game by us. We've got to learn from it, but anytime you come up short it's not a great feeling.

"It's a tough loss. I'll just get through the plane trip and evaluate what we need to do. I want to win every time we take the field."

Head coach Bruce Arians struck a similar chord to Brady, adamant the Bucs fell short of their potential, but he has no concerns when it comes to learning from mistakes.

"Our locker room, they know we didn't play up to our ability," he added. "When we play up to our ability, we're a better team than this one.

"We'll make sure that we make the corrections. Everybody's eyes and ears will be open to the coaching, and our guys do a great job with it."

Matthew Stafford is "playing lights out" for the undefeated Los Angeles Rams as Aaron Donald hailed the quarterback following his performance against Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Stafford outduelled superstar Brady as the Rams beat NFL Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers 34-24 in Los Angeles on Sunday.

In a blockbuster Week 3 showdown, Stafford stole the show with four touchdowns to condemn the Buccaneers to their first loss of the season.

With his haul of four TDs, Stafford improved his season tally to nine – matching Hall of Famer Kurt Warner (1999) for the most by a Rams quarterback in the first three games of a season.

Stafford, who arrived from the Detroit Lions via a trade in the offseason, finished 27 of 38 for 343 yards and no interceptions as he earned praise from team-mate Donald.

"He's playing lights out," Rams defensive linseman Donald said. "That's why he's here, we expect that from him and I know he's going to continue doing what he's doing and even at a higher level."

"It's only three games, still got a long season, but obviously that's the ultimate goal [a Super Bowl], that's what we're chasing," said Donald. "That's the only thing I'm chasing."

Stafford – a Pro Bowler in 2014 – was also lauded by Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians post-game.

"He pushes it down the field so easily," Arians said. "You're right up in his face one time, he finds a guy wide-open down the field and gets it to him.

"A lot of guys, they see it but they can't get it to him. He's a special player."

Stafford, who threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson in the third quarter to give the Rams a 21-7 lead, added: "I was the new guy coming in and they've embraced me, which was awesome.

"I'm just trying to be myself every single day, bring my best every single day and see where that takes us."

Matthew Stafford won the battle of the quarterbacks and the Los Angeles Rams stayed unbeaten while ruining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' perfect record in a 34-24 victory.

All eyes were on Rams QB Stafford and Buccaneers superstar Tom Brady as the two undefeated teams went head-to-head in Week 3 of the NFL on Sunday.

Stafford, who was 27-of-28 for 343 yards and just one sack, stole the show in Los Angeles, where the 2014 Pro Bowler threw four touchdowns to lead the Rams to a 3-0 start to the campaign.

With his haul of four TDs, Stafford improved his season tally to nine – matching Hall of Famer Kurt Warner (1999) for the most by a Rams quarterback in the first three games of a season. Warner won the NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP that season.

Brady was coming off a five-touchdown performance, his ninth career game with five-plus passing TDs (including playoffs) – the fifth player all time to throw four or more touchdowns in each of his first two games of a season.

But the 44-year-old was limited to just one TD pass against the Rams, finishing 41 of 55 for 432 yards and three sacks though he did rush for a score as Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers fell to 2-1.

After a scoreless opening period, Stafford threw touchdown passes to Tyler Higbee and Cooper Kupp as the Rams earned a 14-7 half-time lead.

The Rams never trailed despite Brady's best efforts after the Buccaneers signal-caller rushed for a TD in between Stafford's scoring passes to DeSean Jackson and Kupp in the third period.

After Matt Gay's field goal stretched the lead to 34-17 in the fourth, Brady's first touchdown pass of the game gave the Buccaneers a glimmer of hope with just over a minute remaining but it was a mere consolation.

Carlson lifts Raiders in OT

The Las Vegas Raiders won their third straight game to open the season thanks to a thrilling 31-28 overtime victory against the Miami Dolphins.

Daniel Carlson was the hero for the high-flying Raiders in OT, his 22-yard attempt seeing off the Dolphins in Las Vegas.

Derek Carr completed 26 of his 43 attempts for 386 yards, two touchdowns and an interception with three sacks as the Raiders improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2002.

The third week of the NFL season is not short of enticing matchups.

A divisional showdown between two high-powered AFC West offenses in the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers headlines the early slate of games, while Sunday's primetime matchup sees a rematch of the NFC Championship Game as the Green Bay Packers visit the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers.

Sandwiched in between those fascinating contests is an encounter that most will see as the game of the week, one that could have a pivotal impact on the NFC playoff picture come the end of the season, as Tom Brady plays in Los Angeles for the first time in his professional career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers going out west to take on the Rams.

Beyond being a battle of unbeaten teams, it is an encounter that pits one of the game's most celebrated quarterbacks against one of its most underappreciated, who is thriving in his opening weeks playing for the Rams having been freed from the shackles of a listless Detroit Lions franchise.

Both Brady and Matthew Stafford have started the season as most expected them to, operating at a level to suggest they can propel their respective teams to deep postseason runs.

However, they each will take on defenses stacked with the talent to shut down even the most prolific offenses when at their best. It promises to be a tremendous spectacle at SoFi Stadium, one that should provide an early barometer as to who is the class of the NFC.

Little to separate stellar QBs

Brady is ancient by NFL standards, but his remarkable longevity has turned the fact he continues to excel at age 44 into old news. Nobody is surprised by his continuing brilliance, which sees him lead the league with nine passing touchdowns in two games, four more than Stafford.

Yet a man who has turned performing when the pressure is at its highest in the playoffs into an art is essentially neck and neck with a quarterback yet to taste a postseason victory when it comes to accuracy so far this season.

Stafford has a well-thrown ball percentage of 81.5, putting him just below Brady on 81.7, though it is the former Lion who has the edge when it comes to delivering accurately under pressure.

The Rams' signal-caller ranks fifth among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts under duress this season with a well-thrown percentage of 80 when pressured. Brady has a less impressive ratio of 75 per cent, though that is still well above the average of 69.2 per cent.

Stafford also has a string to his bow that is not a part of Brady's arsenal, as he has settled superbly into Sean McVay's offense and quickly adapted to an attack that consistently relies on the play-action bootleg.

On his nine throws where he has been on the move, Stafford has produced a well-thrown ball 88.9 per cent of the time, compared to 75 per cent on four such attempts for Brady.

That difference reflects the contrasts in offensive approach, but the opportunity to get on the move and outside of the pocket gives Stafford a potentially pivotal avenue to avoid an often ferocious Buccaneers defensive front.

Compelling cases for the defense

Stafford may find encouragement in that a Buccaneers pass rush that pressured Patrick Mahomes 33 times in their Super Bowl win last season has been, for the most part, held in check through two weeks.

Edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, who led the Bucs with 13 pressures of Mahomes, has won just 11 of his 44 pass rush attempts so far, according to Stats Perform data. Things have gone even worse for veteran Jason Pierre-Paul with a solitary win on 34 attempts.

Pierre-Paul's struggles may mean more of rookie Joe Tryon, who has won four of his 12 rushes, but Tampa can at least be fairly confident of pressuring Stafford up the middle, with defensive tackle Vita Vea prevailing on nine of his 25 attempts.

Despite the lack of pressure, Stafford – who has thrown an interceptable pass on 3.7 per cent of his attempts – must be wary of a defense that has already produced four turnovers, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns, with starting cornerbacks Carlton Davis III and Jamel Dean each enjoying strong starts to the campaign. Davis has allowed a receiver to get open on five of his 22 coverage matchups, with Dean (6/21) also proving difficult for pass-catchers to separate from.

The primary threats on the Rams' defense are easy to identify.

Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald has won a massive 65.63 per cent of his pass rushes despite being double teamed 19 times.

Meanwhile, on the back end, cornerback Jalen Ramsey has yet to allow an open receiver in 18 coverage matchups, further illustrating his status as one of the league's most dominant cornerbacks.

For the Bucs to prevail, Brady must avoid both.

Stacked supporting casts

For as much as the two defenses each possess the calibre of player to make a quarterback's life misery, both Brady and Stafford have the luxury of extremely strong offensive lines.

Indeed, the Rams have allowed only 16 pressures of Stafford this season, the fewest in the NFL. Tampa Bay's offensive line has given up 10 more, yet that still puts the Buccaneers tied fifth in the league.

And, should the theme of the two O-Lines giving their quarterbacks time continue, Brady and Stafford will have the opportunity to find some excellent pass-catching options.

Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin has recorded a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted, 88.9 per cent of the time. That is the most among wide receivers with at least 10 targets. His big-play percentage of 46.7 is third among such wideouts.

Antonio Brown's presence on the reserve/COVID-19 list may see even more targets go to Godwin while tight end Rob Gronkowski should play a featured role with a burn percentage of 84.6 and four touchdowns through two games.

The change from Jared Goff to Stafford has not changed the identity of the two most important receivers for the Rams.

Robert Woods' burn percentage of 76.9 is sixth for wideouts with a minimum of 10 targets, and Cooper Kupp's burn yards per target average of 13.94 is second among receivers who have been targeted at least 20 times.

With two extremely accurate quarterbacks, weapons all over the field and a pair of elite defenses, there is little to choose between two teams that for now appear destined to be playing in January. Home advantage, a Rams offensive line that the numbers suggest is slightly superior to that of Tampa Bay and Stafford's greater mobility tip the scales in Los Angeles' favour on paper. Yet, if there is one player who can redress the balance, it is Brady.

The only two remaining unbeaten teams in the AFC are tied in the AFC West, but neither will be in action at Arrowhead on Sunday.

While the Las Vegas Raiders and the Denver Broncos have made strong starts to move to 2-0 in 2021, division favourites the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers were each beaten in Week 2.

Those results ramp up the pressure heading into Week 3 when leading young quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert meet.

Mahomes sat out last year's Week 17 game, which the Chargers won on the road, but he will be involved this time and hoping to bounce back.

This is one of a number of intriguing matchups to look forward to this Sunday, as explored by Stats Perform.

Los Angeles Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs

That late-season win for the Chargers last year moved them to 2-1 at the Chiefs since the start of 2018. Kansas City are 18-4 at home to every other team in that time.

The Chiefs are a little vulnerable right now, too, having allowed a league-high 938 total net yards so far this season – music to Herbert's ears – and last week lost to the Baltimore Ravens despite leading by 11 points entering the fourth quarter. It was their first defeat with Mahomes under center when leading by double digits through three quarters, having previously gone 29-0 in such scenarios.

But the Chargers have an awful knack of coming up just short. Their 20-17 defeat to the Dallas Cowboys last time out was a league-high 16th loss by seven points or fewer since 2019.

Herbert does not know when he is beaten, though. He leads all QBs in completions (19), passing yards (271) and first-down conversions (16) on third down this season, while he is a stunning five-for-six for 112 yards and four first downs on third-and-11 or more.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Los Angeles Rams

There are also two games this week that could easily be early rehearsals for the NFC Championship Game, starting with Tom Brady versus the Rams defense.

Brady threw for five touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons last week and became the fifth player – including a former Buc in Ryan Fitzpatrick (2018) – ever to toss four or more scores in each of the first two games of a season.

However, the Rams, who gave up a league-low 281.9 yards per game in 2020, recorded three sacks and two interceptions against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2.

They pose a threat on offense, too, with Cooper Kupp's 271 receiving yards the third-most by a Ram through the team's first two games of a season in the past 60 yards. Reaching new heights alongside Matthew Stafford, Kupp had just 252 receiving yards over his final five games of 2020.

Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers

The Packers and the 49ers will consider themselves worthy challengers to the Bucs and the Rams, with Green Bay hoping they are now back on track after a dismal Week 1.

They restricted Kyle Shanahan's run game to 55 rushing yards in last year's matchup, with the Niners having averaged 176.8 yards on the ground across their previous eight meetings, going 6-2.

On offense, the Packers have obvious threats in the form of Aaron Jones and Aaron Rodgers.

Jones had four total TDs against the Detroit Lions, becoming the fifth running back in the past 25 yards to record three or more receiving scores in a game, while Rodgers has thrown 18 TDs to two interceptions in eight regular-season games against the Niners, with his 106.9 passer rating the highest versus San Francisco in the Super Bowl era (minimum 100 attempts).

Elsewhere...

The Seattle Seahawks are coming off their first loss under Pete Carroll when leading by 10 at halftime (now 31-1) but face favourable opponents in the Minnesota Vikings, who have lost the teams' past seven meetings – a joint-record including playoffs in the Vikings' history.

The Miami Dolphins also suffered a painful defeat last week and are unlikely to find any comfort in Jacoby Brissett's promotion in Tua Tagovailoa's absence at the Las Vegas Raiders. The backup QB has lost five of his past six games as a starter, while his streak of 146 consecutive passes without a touchdown in the NFL is the longest ongoing run.

Jameis Winston's regression for the New Orleans Saints in Week 2 came at a bad time, with the New England Patriots next up. The Pats have had four or more interceptions in a league-high 16 different games in the Bill Belichick era, including against the New York Jets last time out.

Beaten by both the 49ers and the Packers, the Lions' next test is against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Jackson has rushed for 80 yards in four consecutive regular-season games, the most by any QB in the Super Bowl era.

Those numbers pale a little next to running back Derrick Henry's 182 yards and three rushing TDs in Seattle. Only Jim Brown (five) has had more 175-yard, three-score rushing games than the Tennessee Titan's four – tied with LaDainian Tomlinson. He plays the Indianapolis Colts next.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians admitted that the franchise have reached out to veteran cornerback Richard Sherman following an injury to Sean Murphy-Bunting.

Cornerback Murphy-Bunting was placed on injured reserve after dislocating his right elbow in the Bucs' 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1.

Arians said that Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht had spoken to 33-year-old Sherman to gauge his interest.

Five-time Pro Bowler Sherman was released by the San Francisco 49ers in February but has legal issues to manage after being arrested in July.

"Jason's reached out. We got to see," Arians said. "He's got other things going on too.

"Just a matter of, 'I coach the ones that we got and let him handle the rest of that.' We'll kick the tires on some other guys too.

"But it's just a matter of, 'No, we'll talk and see, and if it's the right fit, it's the right fit and we'll move on it'."

Arians confirmed no timeframe for Murphy-Bunting's absence but he will miss at least three games on injured reserve.

Sherman only played five games for the 49ers last season due to injury but would add experience to the Bucs secondary.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw plenty of room for improvement even after a 48-25 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons that featured five touchdown passes by superstar Tom Brady. 

NFL Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers held a 28-10 lead following the opening drive of the second half, but watched Matt Ryan and the Falcons narrow the deficit to three by the end of the third quarter on Sunday.

Brady's final TD pass of the game and a pair of interception returns for touchdowns by Mike Edwards in the fourth period accounted for the lopsided final score, but the Buccaneers did not sound satisfied afterward. 

"The defence made some huge plays, that's the great thing," Brady told reporters. "Fourth quarter, three-point game and they make a huge stop and [we] went down there and scored, which was good. Then a few big turnovers, so that was great to see.

"Offensively, we grinded out and found a way but obviously we all wish we could have done some things to be more productive. It was a good team effort."

Brady improved to 9-0 in his career against the Falcons and broke one of his own NFL records in the process. 

The 44-year-old has already thrown nine touchdowns through two games this season – a new career-high after two games of a season.

Brady has thrown for at least four passing touchdowns in four successive regular-season games, dating back to last term. It ties Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the NFL's second longest streak since 1950 – one shy of Peyton Manning's streak of five straight games.

Including the playoffs, Sunday was the ninth straight game in which the Buccaneers won while scoring at least 30 points, breaking the league record of eight previously shared with Brady's 2007 and 2011 New England Patriots. 

On the heels of a tense 31-29 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener, Tampa Bay are grateful to be unbeaten but do not believe they have found a rhythm. 

"We left points out there," Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. "Obviously we got 14 out of the defence but we left points out there offensively.

"I haven't seen us getting close to playing consistently yet. Hopefully we'll get there next week because we're going to have to."

The Buccaneers will face the high-powered Los Angeles Rams in Week 3 in their first road game of the season, and Brady agrees that the offence will need to do more going forward. 

"What I think and I'm sure other guys feel the same way is I think we can do better," Brady said. "I really do. I think we have the opportunity, the way the games are flowing and the opportunities we're getting with the ball we can maybe have even more opportunities.

"We were a little loose with the ball, some penalties at different times that have knocked us out of some scoring drives. Some missed throws that I've had, some missed reads. I certainly wish I had made a few better throws tonight.

"But, again, it's good to get the win. We're 2-0 and there's a lot to build on."

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan insisted the team's Super Bowl LI meltdown has "no bearing" on Sunday's NFL clash with Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brady was part of the New England Patriots team that completed the largest comeback in Super Bowl history after rallying past the Falcons in 2017.

Ryan's Falcons surrendered a 28-3 lead as the Patriots sensationally prevailed 34-28 in overtime.

Falcons veteran Ryan will do battle against Brady, who now wears a Buccaneers jersey after leading Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl last season.

But that Super Bowl collapse is not in Ryan's head, with the 36-year-old – who is 0-5 against Brady in his career – discussing the infamous defeat on Wednesday.

"I haven't," Ryan said when he heard a reference to the Super Bowl LI loss. "I never heard of it."

The Falcons lost 32-6 to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1 after Ryan (21-of-35 passing for 164 yards) did not throw a touchdown.

Ryan threw for 164 yards, his fewest in a game since Week 7 of 2019 (159) and his second fewest to open a season in his career, behind only the 161 yards in his first career game in 2008, per Stats Perform.

It was Atlanta's worst loss to open a season since losing by 38 in their opening game in 1987. The Falcons made field goals on each of their first two drives and then either punted or had a turnover on downs in each drive after that.

"Of course we want to win. It's not going to make up for that," Ryan said, discussing the Super Bowl defeat to the Patriots. "You know, it's one of those things. It's part of your past, it's part of what happened.

"But it's got no bearing on this week."

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 same two teams have not faced each other in consecutive Super Bowls since 1994, when the Dallas Cowboys ended the 1993 season by repeating as champions with a second straight rout of the Buffalo Bills, for whom the loss marked their fourth consecutive defeat on the grandest stage.

But the stars may be aligning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs to end that wait and face off again in Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles in February.

Tampa Bay crushed Kansas City in Super Bowl LV, becoming the first team to win the Lombardi Trophy at their home stadium with a 31-9 triumph.

And it is tough to look at the respective rosters following strong offseasons from both without feeling they should each be in position to renew acquaintances at SoFi Stadium.

The Buccaneers did an excellent job of keeping their title-winning core together, while the Chiefs attacked the glaring weakness that saw their hopes of defending the championship last season go up in flames.

Using its advanced data, Stats Perform analyses why these two powerhouses appear poised to emulate the feat of the Cowboys and Bills.

Bucs keep the band together

Faced with the complex challenge of retaining a host of free agents who made significant contributions to their Super Bowl triumph while dealing with a salary cap shrinking due to the impact of the pandemic and a season played largely without fans, the Buccaneers made good on head coach Bruce Arians' post-championship pledge to keep the heart of the roster intact.

There were, of course, some departures, but the pivotal cogs that helped propel the Bucs to a second title in franchise history were all tied down for 2021 and, in most cases, beyond.

Perhaps the most important move the Bucs made was to re-sign edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, who had 13 of Tampa Bay's 31 pressures of Patrick Mahomes in February to a four-year, $72million contract that is the joint-11th most expensive edge rusher contract in the league by average annual salary. 

The fact Barrett agreed to take a discount to stay with Tampa is reflective of the excellent situation the Bucs are in, and several of his team-mates were similarly eager to re-sign with a team superbly positioned to contend for more titles.

 

Veteran linebacker Lavonte David received long-overdue recognition in 2020 after years of stellar play and also received a two-year, $25m deal from the Bucs to keep him next to Devin White in the middle of the defense.

David allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, on 36.8 per cent of his targets. His 6.42 burn yards per target conceded was fourth best among all linebackers while White's pressure rate of 37.3 was the best for linebackers with at least 50 pass rush attempts.

They have a claim for being the top linebacking duo in football when it comes to affecting the pass game and the Bucs' front seven looks to have all the ingredients to give quarterbacks nightmares in 2021. Tampa retained the services of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and added a first-round pass rusher in Joe Tryon, who recorded a 19.6% pressure rate off the edge in his last season for Washington in 2019, with 30 of his 35 total pressures seeing him beat a pass protector.

However, the Chiefs have made a series of impressive moves with the aim of ensuring Tampa Bay cannot disrupt their aerial attack to the same extent should they meet again.

Protecting Patrick

The defining image of Kansas City's 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV was that of Mahomes running for his life in the face of near relentless pressure from Tampa Bay.

Mahomes was playing behind an offensive line decimated by injuries. Right tackle Mike Remmers was forced to play at left tackle and guard Andrew Wylie had to take his place across the formation.

Kansas City's offense was unable to function at anything close to peak performance as a result, and the Chiefs' offseason appeared designed entirely to prevent such a scenario coming to pass again.

Joe Thuney was signed as a free agent to lock down the left guard position having served as one of most dependable players in football during his career with the New England Patriots. Thuney's pressure rate (4%) in 2020 was fifth among all guards and he will have Orlando Brown Jr. on his outside shoulder after the Chiefs traded their 2021 first-rounder among multiple picks to acquire him from the Baltimore Ravens to be their new left tackle.

Brown, who is switching from right to left tackle and gave up a pressure rate of 9% in 2020, may have some work to do as a pass blocker but Kansas City should expect him to help their run game. Only David Bakhtiari (3%) allowed run disruptions at a lower rate than Brown (3.6%) last year.

In addition to fortifying the left side, the Chiefs ensured they will have depth across the line. They used one of their two second-round picks on Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, whose pressure rate (1.6%) was joint-third best among Power 5 centers with a minimum of 50 pass protection snaps. He is set to start ahead of versatile free agent addition Austin Blythe and another rookie, sixth-round pick Trey Smith, is in line to get the starting right guard job ahead of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

 

Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season to aid the fight against coronavirus in his native Canada, should prove an extremely valuable reserve having been credited with allowing just two adjusted sacks on 354 pass protection snaps in 2019.

The big question mark is at right tackle, where Lucas Niang seems primed to start. He did not play in his rookie year after opting out and is, therefore, likely to be the player opposing pass rushes target. The Chiefs will hope he can reprise his form of his senior year at TCU, when he was not credited with an adjusted sack allowed on 123 pass protection snaps.

Kansas City defeated the Buccaneers in Week 12 of the 2020 season with the 27-24 score flattering Tampa Bay. Conventional wisdom says that with better protection, Mahomes and the Chiefs' explosive offense would have the advantage. But, after an offseason in which the Bucs solidified the strength of their team and Chiefs attacked a deficiency, is that actually the case?

Who has the edge?

There is statistical evidence to backup the argument that, if the Chiefs have genuinely fixed their pass protection, then they deserve to be Super Bowl favourites.

When he is not overwhelmed by pressure, Mahomes can be an extremely dangerous quarterback to blitz due to his ability to improvise and turn seemingly negative plays into explosive ones.

From a clean pocket, he can be little short of a nightmare to defend. In the Chiefs' title-winning 2019 season, when he was not pressured Mahomes delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball 84 per cent of the time, the fifth-best rate in the NFL. His pickable pass percentage of 1.81 was third.

Those numbers dipped in 2020, but his 81.6% well-thrown was still above average and his 2.39% pickable pass rate was 12th. With his 2019 following a stunning 2018 in which he was named league MVP, the likelihood is that last season was the anomaly.

Even if Mahomes does return to the remarkably high standards of his first two years as a starter, there's plenty to suggest the Chiefs still might not be able to outgun a Buccaneers offense that coalesced at the perfect time in the previous campaign.

In the final four games following the regular-season loss to the Chiefs and their bye, the Bucs ran the table going 4-0 and led the league with 357.3 net passing yards per game. Brady threw 14 touchdowns and just one interception.

 

That tailed off to 256 net yards per game, third among teams to play multiple playoff games, in the postseason as the standard of opposition improved, but the reality is his decision to leave New England for Tampa Bay rejuvenated Brady as a downfield passer.

Only Deshaun Watson (69) and Mahomes (67) had more completions of 20 yards or more than the 63 produced by Brady, who ranked fourth in air yards per attempt (9.50) among quarterbacks with at least 100 passes but was able to protect the ball while going deep more often, his pickable pass percentage of 2.20 second behind Alex Smith.

He will again have the benefit of arguably the deepest wide receiver corps in the NFL in his 22nd season. The Bucs franchise tagged Chris Godwin to keep him around while also re-signing Antonio Brown, and Brady will surely be confident of furthering his rapport with the former, who registered a burn on 72.6 per cent of targets last year, tied-seventh among receivers with at least 50 targets.

With Brady seemingly gaining new life midway through his fifth decade and turning the Tampa offense into a juggernaut late last season and Mahomes set to enjoy what should be a much higher standard of protection, the stage is set for a potential shootout should these teams book a rematch in five months' time.

The Chiefs have almost always been able to rely on outscoring their opponents. Yet, in a possible aerial duel with Brady and the Bucs, it is their defense, which ranked 18th with 6.42 yards per pass play allowed last season, that looks the most vulnerable.

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."

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