Buccaneers' Tom Brady to return to New England in Week 4, when all-time passing mark may be on line

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will begin their Super Bowl defense against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Kickoff Game on Thursday, Sept. 9, at Raymond James Stadium, but all eyes will be on Tom Brady's return to Foxborough, Massachusetts, on Oct. 3.

The Week 4 game on "Sunday Night Football" will mark Brady's first meeting against the Patriots since he signed with the Bucs as a free agent last offseason, leaving behind the legacy he had built in New England, where he played 20 seasons and won six of his seven Super Bowl titles.

The night will also mark the return of Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski, who played nine seasons in New England, winning three titles. Gronkowski, who turns 32 on Friday, retired after the 2018 season due to injuries before returning to play with Brady in Tampa Bay last season and winning his fourth ring.

Brady will enter the season just 1,154 yards behind Drew Brees for the NFL's career passing record. With the Pats game in Week 4, he could be in line to break the mark in his return to Foxborough. At his 2020 pace (289.6 passing yards per game), he would finish Week 4 with 1,158 yards.

The Patriots, with Cam Newton mostly under center, went 7-9 in 2020, missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2008 season.

This will also mark the first time the Bucs will play in the Kickoff Game, the season-opening contest that was introduced in 2002. They won Super Bowl XXXVII, then opened the next season on Monday Night Football, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in 2003.

Since 2004, 16 defending Super Bowl champions have played in the NFL season opener, and those teams have gone 13-3.

Brady and Cowboys' quarterback Dak Prescott -- who is expected to be back from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle suffered last season -- will face off for just the second time in their careers. Their first matchup was in 2019, when Brady was still with the Patriots. (New England won 13-9.)

"9/9 can't come soon enough," Brady posted in his Instagram Story on Tuesday. "Excited to open against 'America's Team.'"

The Bucs, who opened as six-point favorites over the Cowboys at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill on Wednesday, are 0-2 all time against Prescott, having fallen 27-20 in Week 16 in 2018 and 26-20 in Week 15 in 2016, with both games played at AT&T Stadium.

In Brady's first season with the team, the Bucs averaged 30.19 points per game in 2020 -- second most in the NFL behind only the Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys allowed a franchise-worst 473 points in 2020, with former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn taking over defensive playcalling in 2021 and orchestrating a defensive overhaul.

Six of the 13 players who started and/or played more than 40% of the Cowboys' defensive snaps in 2020 have retired or are no longer with the team, while the Bucs return all 22 starters on offense and defense from their Super Bowl LV win -- the first time a team has done that in the salary cap era.

Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Houston Texans 34-20 in the NFL Kickoff Game at Arrowhead Stadium. They ended up going 14-2 in the regular season before losing to the Bucs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV.

Since the Kickoff Game was introduced, Brady has gone 3-1 in the Thursday night opener, with wins in 2004, '05 and '15 while with the Patriots. His lone loss came against the Chiefs at Gillette Stadium in 2017. Brady also has the most starts (four) and wins (three) in the Kickoff Game of any quarterback since the NFL started playing such games in 2002.

Brady is 10-1 all time when opening the season at home, but this will mark his first time doing so as a Buccaneer. The 42-27 loss to the Chiefs in 2017 was his only defeat at home in Week 1.

The league and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission are planning a free music and football festival leading up to this year's opener. The league office says details on the musical acts will be unveiled this summer.

The NFL announced schedules for all 32 teams on Wednesday night. The 2021 NFL season will mark the first time each team will play 17 regular-season games.