By: Robert Bishop
Back again, and after a long off-season and a mercifully abbreviated preseason, the NFL will officially kickoff the 2021 campaign tomorrow night. Tomorrow’s opening tilt highlights a full Week 1 slate, as the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys.
While there’s plenty of big names present on both rosters, it’s an unheralded superstar whose absence will loom largest tomorrow night as the Cowboys will be without guard Zach Martin (COVID). Martin ranks alongside Quenton Nelson as the best interior offensive lineman in football. His being sidelined will leave a massive void for Dallas in a match-up against a defensive front led by Vita Vea, arguably the most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL not named Aaron Donald.
Martin being sidelined will make the arduous task of Dallas keeping pace with the Tom Brady-led Bucs offense even more difficult. On the plus side, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, sidelined for almost a full calendar year after suffering a brutal ankle injury last October, seems to be healthy following a lengthy rehab and a lingering shoulder injury that resulted from his return to the field. Prescott was playing at an MVP level before the injury last season, and Dallas will need a similar level of production from him to not only pull off the opening night upset but to compete in the NFC East against a sneaky-talented Washington Football Team.
San Francisco enters the season hoping for better health following an injury-ravaged 2020 season. While lingering questions surround the team’s quarterback situation, the graver concern for the 49ers entering into Week 1 is a lack of depth in the secondary. San Francisco moved to address this concern on Sunday, signing veteran cornerback Josh Norman to a one-year deal. Though far removed from the All-Pro level of play seen in 2015, Norman was solid for the Bills a season ago. Therefore, even competent play from Norman will be a significant win for San Francisco.
As the NFL season is gearing up, the MLB regular season is winding down, and though the bulk of divisional races are essentially clinched, the NL East, NL West, and three Wild Card spots remain up for grabs. In the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays are locked in at the top of the standings, boasting the best record in the AL despite a lack of stars and losing ace Tyler Glasnow to injury early in the season. In the Central, the Chicago White Sox own an 11-game lead and are merely hoping to be healthy for the playoffs as a host of crucial players battle injuries, while in the West, Houston is comfortably up on the Mariners and Athletics.
Though the divisions are all but decided, the American League Wild Card race will be a battle to the end. The Toronto Blue Jays are arguably the best team in contention, owning a six-game winning streak and the fourth-best run differential in the AL (+140). Unfortunately for Toronto, the Blue Jays also sit behind the Yankees and Red Sox in the Wild Card standings. However, Toronto is currently two games into a four-game series with the Yankees, and a sweep of the series would provide a massive boost to the team’s postseason hopes.
In the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers are up 11 games over the Cincinnati Reds in the Central while the other two divisions are up for grabs. The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers are both playoff-bound, but the two teams are fighting to avoid the Wild Card Game as San Francisco currently sits a game ahead of L.A. in the standings. Atlanta boasts a meager lead over the Phillies in the NL East, while the Mets are four games out of the division and cannot be ruled out. The final Wild Card spot in the NL is currently held via tie by the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds, though neither team is dominating. The Phillies, Cardinals, and Mets are all within a few games of the final playoff spot with less than a month remaining in the season.