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Opening weekend sets stage for highly anticipated NFL season

America’s champs against America’s Team.The NFL isn’t exactly easing into the 2021 season, pitting the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the visiting Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Sept. 9. Seemingly ageless Tom Brady will begin his quest for an eighth ring, and Dak Prescott will line up behind center for the Cowboys for the first time since a severe ankle injury in October.

That is the opening game to a weekend full of intriguing first-week matchups:

■  Recently traded Sam Darnold will open at home for the Carolina Panthers when they play his old team, the New York Jets. The Jets likely will start his replacement, No. 2 overall draft pick Zach Wilson.

■  No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence is expected to make his first start for the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s also the debut for coach Urban Meyer, who will try to translate the championship success he had at Florida and Ohio State. The opponent is the host Houston Texans, who had a messy offseason, and it’s anyone’s guess who will be their quarterback.

■  The Cleveland Browns travel to the Kansas City Chiefs in a playoff rematch. Kansas City edged the Browns 22-17 in the divisional round last season on the way to the Super Bowl.

■  It’s a little bit of a mystery who will start at quarterback when the Green Bay Packers visit the New Orleans Saints. Aaron Rodgers hasn’t shot down talk he wants out of Green Bay, but maybe he will take snaps in the Superdome that day. The Packers signed Blake Bortles on Wednesday, adding to the speculation. It’s definitely a new era in New Orleans with Drew Brees having retired, but whether Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill is his successor remains to be seen.

The NFL released its schedule Wednesday, the first time the league’s teams will play 17 regular-season games over 18 weeks.

Unlike last season’s games in fanless stadiums or before limited attendance — depending on local COVID-19 guidelines — the NFL hopes for packed stadiums this year.

Anticipating loosened COVID restrictions, the NFL is returning to London after taking a year off from international travel. The Atlanta Falcons play the Jets on Oct. 10, and the Miami Dolphins will face the Jaguars a week later. Both games will be played in Tottenham’s stadium, site of an English Premier League team.

The Detroit Lions and Cowboys again take their traditional place as Thanksgiving hosts. Detroit plays the Chicago Bears in the early game, followed by the Cowboys welcoming the Raiders. The prime-time game features the Buffalo Bills at the Saints.

Two games will be played on Christmas — Cleveland at Green Bay and the Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Cardinals.

All divisional games will make up the season’s final weekend for the 12th year in a row. The regular season ends Jan. 9, 2022, the Pro Bowl is Feb. 6 at Allegiant Stadium, and the Super Bowl is Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.