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2021 NFL season: Will COVID-19 be more difficult to navigate than in 2020?

(AP Photo / Elaine Thompson)

The first Sunday of the 2021 NFL season came and went, and the league seemed to dodge any issues related to COVID-19.

After a full season of dealing with positive tests, postponed games, frequent testing, and strict protocols, that type of news was a welcome sound for the NFL’s 32 teams and the league’s higher-ups.

For once, it seemed like the league could put the effects of the pandemic in the rearview mirror and celebrate a return to normalcy.

>>RELATED: 2021 NFL season: Early predictions for MVP, top rookies, and more

But, if you were to ask Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, it may be a little early to act like everything’s all fine and dandy.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times ahead of the 2021 regular season, Brady shared his opinion that COVID-19 could actually lead to more issues in 2021 than it did throughout a drama-filled 2020 season.

“I think it’s going to be challenging this year,” Brady explained to Rick Stroud. “I actually think it’s going to play more of a factor this year than last year.”

As the 2021 season got underway for 28 of the league’s 32 teams on September 12, a plethora of stadiums were full of fans for the first time since January of 2020 or December of 2019, depending on how each team’s 2019 season played out.

Given the Buccaneers’ success en route to a victory in Super Bowl LV, Brady played in each of the possible environments throughout the 2020 season, and was one of two teams that went through the most testing throughout the year.

He took the field inside empty arenas, competed in front of limited-capacity audiences, and was under center for a Super Bowl with 25,000 fans and 30,000 cutouts inside his team’s own stadium.

>>RELATED: Every NFL team’s schedule for the 2021 season

In the interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Brady also revealed he had COVID-19 following the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl celebration in February, personally feeling the effects that tens of millions have dealt with throughout the virus’ rise.

So, Brady seems like a solid source when it comes to noting some of the major differences year-over-year as it relates to the pandemic.

“What we’re doing now and what the stadium is going to look like,” Brady told Stroud as he listed off some of the factors that could make 2021 more challenging. “What the travel is going to look like and the people in the building and the fans.”

“It’s not like last year, although we’re getting tested like last year,” Brady continued. “It’s going to be, I definitely think guys are going to be out at different points and we’ve just got to deal with it.”

Brady’s Buccaneers didn’t deal with any COVID-19-related impacts in the days leading up to their season opener, but the opposing Dallas Cowboys certainly did.

Starting right guard Zack Martin missed Week 1 against the Buccaneers due to a positive COVID-19 test, forcing the Cowboys to operate without one of the key pieces of their offensive line against one of the league’s best defenses.

>>RELATED: ‘Hard Knocks: The Dallas Cowboys’ season finale recap/review: ‘Bottom line activity’

Wide receiver Noah Brown was also placed on the list of inactives for Week 1 as a result of COVID-19, rubbing salt in the wound ahead of the Cowboys’ 31-29 loss to begin the year.

A few hours before the start of the 2021 season’s first Sunday slate, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that there were “no COVID-19 issues for Week 1, with all games set to be played” that Sunday.

The news was obviously great to hear as the NFL looks to move towards a post-pandemic operation, combined with a CBS Sports report that all but five of the league’s 32 teams had reached a player vaccination rate of 90 percent or above.

But, it certainly doesn’t guarantee that the league will be without any dilemmas as the season progresses.

In fact, if things get bad enough and COVID-19 outbreaks begin to form due to unvaccinated players, teams could be forced to forfeit as a result of the league’s protocols for 2021.

>>RELATED: Outbreaks among unvaccinated NFL players could lead to forfeits in 2021

Time will tell how each organization will handle the virus throughout the 2021 season, especially with the handful of teams that had yet to reach the 90-percent vaccination rate ahead of their Week 1 games.

But, one thing is guaranteed: it isn’t time to take any victory laps as it relates to COVID-19 as the 2021 season rolls along.

How do you think the 2021 NFL season will play out? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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