TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2018 schedule features a tough opening three-game stretch featuring two divisional champs and the defending Super Bowl champions.
There is a Week 3 Monday Night Football game, an early Week 5 bye week and yet another odd scheduling quirk this year that will mean the NFC South title will come down to the wire in Week 17. It should be noted that there is no Thursday Night Football game on the Bucs' schedule for the first time since 2011, and every single Sunday game will be played at 1:00 p.m. ET unless it's flexed.
Here’s a game-by-game prediction of how the year will go:
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 10, at New Orleans Saints, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs may be 11-18 all-time in New Orleans and the Superdome can be a particularly tough place to play, but since 2015, the Saints have gone 0-4 at home during the month of September. They're just not a good September team, period. In the last four years, they've gone 2-11 in September, the worst mark of any team in the league during that time frame. They'll get an early test from running back Alvin Kamara, who had 280 all-purpose yards in two games against the Bucs last year. Quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans should also get a pretty warm reception after that Marshon Lattimore altercation they had in the Superdome last year.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, vs. Philadelphia Eagles, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs have faced the reigning Super Bowl champion 21 times. They are 4-17 in those games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. This will actually be the third-straight season that the Bucs play the defending champs. They lost to the New England Patriots 19-14 at home in 2017 and they lost to the Denver Broncos 27-7 at home in 2016. The Eagles are 9-6 on the road in the month of September since 2010, second-best of any team in the league for that time period. Also, because the Eagles play on Thursday night the previous week, they'll have three extra days to prepare.
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 24, vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:15 p.m. ET
The Steelers are 45-24 all-time on Monday nights, the best record by any AFC team and third-best of any NFL team, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Seattle Seahawks and San Franciso 49ers are the only NFL teams with better records in those games. With the secondary expected to be addressed in next week's NFL draft, this will provide an early test. In the last five seasons, no team has completed more passes of 20 or more air yards downfield than the Steelers. Since 2016, the Bucs are 27th in the league (39 percent) in completion percentage surrendered on passes of 20-plus air yards.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at Chicago Bears, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs’ first three opponents had a .771 average win percentage from last season, which is the highest in the league when comparing teams’ first three opponents. They'll catch a little bit of a break in Chicago against a Bears squad that has finished 14-34 the last three seasons. The Bucs’ all-time record in Chicago is 6-21 -- going back to the old NFC Central days, but they've gone 2-0 against the Bears the last two years. They won't be able to push the tempo in sweltering Tampa heat, though, but possibly on the inexperience of young Mitch Trubisky.
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 p.m. ET
If Winston can build off of what he was able to do on Monday Night Football last season against Atlanta -- throwing three touchdowns and zero interceptions in arguably his best-ever game, despite a 24-21 loss -- it could be a real tone-setter for the rest of the season. On the other hand, the Bucs' defense gave up 926 all-purpose yards in two games against the Falcons last year, more than any other team in the league.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, vs. Cleveland Browns, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs are 2-0 at home against the Browns since 2002. They have faced the team scheduled to pick first-overall in the draft 15 times. Interestingly enough, those haven't been "gimme games." As a matter of fact, they are 5-10 in them, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Still, they should be able to win this, even with a revamped Browns' front office, top free agents in Jarvis Landry, Tyrod Taylor and Damarious Randall and some quality draft picks getting ready to blossom -- it will take some time for those pieces to jell.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Cincinnati Bengals, 1:00 p.m. ET
You can always expect a punishing defense from Marvin Lewis' group, but last season, they struggled stopping the run at home, surrendering 4.55 yards per carry, third-most of any team in the league. Their 137.8 rushing yards allowed per game at home was also tops in the league. It should be noted, though, that they only gave up, on-average, 190 passing yards per game at home, fourth-best in the league, and their 36-percent red zone efficiency defense was third-best in the league. The Bucs could use a heavy dose of Peyton Barber here.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Carolina Panthers, 1:00 p.m. ET
Since 2015, the Panthers are 6-1 at Bank of America Stadium in November, tied for the best home record in the NFL during that span. In October of last year at Raymond James Stadium, the Panthers' defense completely annihilated Winston, picking him off twice and preventing him from scoring a touchdown. With Winston healthy, things should be a lot closer, the way they were in Week 15, when the Bucs lost 22-19. Five of the last eight games between these two teams have been decided by one score or less.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, vs. Washington Redskins, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Redskins' defense allowed the third-lowest completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks in 2017 (57.6 percent). They also yielded, on average, an opponent passer rating of 81.0, one of the top marks in the league. This group has some familiarity with quarterback Alex Smith, though not in Jay Gruden's system, after the Bucs pulled off a thrilling 19-17 win at Arrowhead Stadium, thanks to a fourth-quarter interception from safety Chris Conte.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at New York Giants, 1:00 p.m. ET
When defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was introduced as the newest member of the Buccaneers, he said this matchup was already circled on his calendar. He spent eight seasons with the Giants, recording 58.5 sacks, 27 more than any of his teammates in that time span. On the other side of the ball, the Bucs will face a new-look Giants' 3-4 defense, and depending on where the chips fall, possibly one of the most electrifying running backs in years if they wind up drafting Saquon Barkley, whom general manager Dave Gettleman loves.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, vs. San Francisco 49ers, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs know Kyle Shanahan's offenses from his time with the Redskins and more recently, the Atlanta Falcons, but this will be their first time seeing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, whose 1,542 passing yards in his first five starts was more than Joe Montana and Steve Young combined (1,479). He also had seven-consecutive wins to start his career, tied for the fourth-longest streak in the Super Bowl era.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, vs. Carolina Panthers, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs most-definitely want to play the Panthers at Raymond James Stadium in December, versus Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers are 6-5 on the road in December (.545) versus 10-1 at home (.909), the league's best home December record. This also marks the start of three divisional games in the final five weeks of the season, all at home, in yet another odd divisional schedule quirk.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, vs. New Orleans Saints, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs' 31-24 win over the Saints at home to close out last season not only helped them finish the year on a high note, but helped salvage head coach Dirk Koetter's job. This game also marked tremendous improvement from their rushing defense, holding Kamara and Mark Ingram to just 79 combined rushing yards. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith always emphasizes that the good teams run the ball well in December. It's up to the great defenses to be able to stop them.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Baltimore Ravens 1:00 p.m. ET
The Ravens are tough when they're at home, going 47-17 since 2010, the NFL’s fourth-best home record during that span. But if there's a bright side to that for the Bucs, they've actually had a drop-off in play the last eight years from November to December. Since 2010, they've gone 15-2 at home in November, the best in the league, but have slipped to 12-7 in December, 12th in the league. It'll be a test for Winston though. The Ravens' defense also notched 22 interceptions last season, more than any other team in the league.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Dallas Cowboys, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Bucs may have lost to the Cowboys 26-20 in Week 15 of 2016, but statistically, this is actually a great time for road teams to visit AT&T Stadium. Since 2001, the Cowboys are 12-17 at home in the month of December, 28th in the league. In the last five years, they’ve gone 3-4 at home during that month, 27th in the league. They had no answers for Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown, but their revamped defensive line, featuring three former NFC East D-linemen in Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, should fare better. Still, the Bucs are just 1-11 all-time at Dallas, with their lone victory coming in a 10-6 game in 2001.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, vs. Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 p.m. ET
This game will really be a four-ring circus, just like last year, because the Panthers and Saints will also be playing at 1:00 and those teams face heavily-backloaded divisional schedules too. For example, four of the Saints' final six games are NFC South opponents, while the Panthers will see four of their final five come from the division. The Bucs are 2-0 in season finales played at home under Koetter.