“It is impossible to project what the next few months will bring,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a memo to all 32 teams on Wednesday. Those words hang over the schedule released by the NFL on Thursday that projects football (and some semblance of normalcy) will be possible by September. Goodell’s memo is a reminder that the schedule comes with one massive asterisk—that the COVID-19 pandemic may force the league to postpone the start of the season or cancel parts of it. Goodell reiterated that in a statement released by the league on Thursday night.
“In preparing to play out the season as scheduled,” the statement reads, “we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with appropriate safety protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities.”
With that in mind, let’s dive into what you need to know about the schedule for the 2020 season and highlight some choice matchups.
The league is operating as if it will play a full season (but it has contingency plans).
As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, if the season is delayed the league is prepared to fit in a full 16-game schedule by potentially pushing back the playoffs and the Super Bowl (which is currently scheduled for February 7) by weeks or months. Missed games can be moved to January. Every team’s Week 2 opponent has the same bye week, so if the beginning of the season is delayed, Week 2 matchups could be rescheduled during bye weeks and the season can be played without giving teams any breaks (though that move may be unpopular with players). The preseason could also be drastically reduced.
If the league does have to cancel regular-season games, an examination of the divisional-game breakdown reveals a potential strategy. Since divisional games are essential to playoff seeding, they are the last games the league wants to cancel. In 2011, when a lockout threatened the season, the league scheduled zero divisional games in Weeks 2 and 4 in case they could not play a full season. This year, there are nine divisional games in Week 1 and six in Week 2, but zero in Weeks 3 and 4. As Greg Auman of The Athletic noted, the week-by-week divisional game counts are as follows:
Here's how the NFL's 96 divisional games are split from week to week in 2020:— Greg Auman (@gregauman) May 8, 2020
Week 1: 9
Week 2: 6
Week 3: 0
Week 4: 0
Week 5: 5
Week 6: 4
Week 7: 8
Week 8: 5
Week 9: 6
Week 10: 8
Week 11: 4
Week 12: 6
Week 13: 5
Week 14: 3
Week 15: 6
Week 16: 5
Week 17: 16
If the NFL is forced to cancel games, Weeks 3 and 4 may be cancelled first. Week 2 can be squeezed into bye weeks or wedged into January along with Week 1, though eliminating bye weeks may have to be negotiated with the NFLPA. With this plan, the league could start a month late but still finish a 14-game season by pushing the Super Bowl back just a week. Any games from Week 5 on that get delayed could, in theory, be wedged into January and push the Super Bowl closer to the end of February or even March.
“Our job is to be ready to play and we will be ready to play, and that’s what we expect to do,” Goodell told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg before the NFL draft on April 22. “It’s tough to project where we are two weeks from, let alone three months from now. It’s speculative still.”
Goodell has been true to his word on not planning too far into the future. NFL teams have not yet canceled June minicamps despite team facilities still being closed, so any decision on whether the season will be delayed or truncated would likely come much closer to the games being played.
There will be a lot of Tom Brady in prime time.
The Bucs had one primetime game last year. This year they have five. I wonder what changed ...
Week 1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox)
The two most prolific passers of all time now are in the same division, vying for the same division title. Brady and Drew Brees are top two in career passing yards, completions, and touchdowns, and by the end of this season they’ll both surpass Brett Favre in pass attempts.
Week 6: Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox)
Brady and Aaron Rodgers have only played against each other as starters twice in their careers, with one win apiece. With Brady now in the NFC, there’s likely to be more chances to face off.
Week 12: Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
The first three meetings between Brady and Patrick Mahomes were a legendary start to their rivalry, and now they get a fourth matchup with Brady in Tampa Bay.
Week 15: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Fox)
If Falcons fans thought Brady haunted their nightmares after blowing their 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, how will they feel now that Brady is hunting them from within the NFC South?
There will be plenty of “this is weird” Week 1 games.
Week 1: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The last time the Patriots didn’t have Tom Brady on their roster, Pete Carroll was the Patriots head coach, Bill Clinton was president, and Donald Trump finalized his second divorce and explored his first run for president.
Week 1: Los Angeles Chargers vs. Cincinnati Bengals (4:05 p.m. ET CBS)
This is the first time that Philip Rivers won’t suit up at quarterback for the Chargers since 2005. Whether it will be Tyrod Taylor or rookie Justin Herbert, someone will be starting for the Chargers not named Phil. On the other sideline will be Joe Burrow, who will almost certainly start for the Bengals in Week 1 after the team released Andy Dalton late last month.
There will be plenty of revenge games.
Week 5: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
After 10 years as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Jason Garrett will face his old team at Jerryworld as the Giants’ offensive coordinator. If the Giants win this game, cue 10,000 versions of the same joke: “Jason Garrett has been beating the Cowboys for 11 years.” If the Cowboys win, well, Garrett would be wise to stay offline the next day.
Week 9: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday, Fox/NFL Network/Amazon Prime Video)
This game will likely be more competitive than January’s NFC championship game because it is hard to imagine how it could be more lopsided. The 49ers blew the Packers out of the water, 37-20, in a game nowhere near as close as the score indicated. Rodgers will be looking to beat the team that kept him from his second Super Bowl, but also the team that passed on him for the no. 1 pick in the draft in 2005, and the team who may have beaten the Packers so badly in January that Green Bay drafted Rodgers’s potential replacement at quarterback in the first round.
Week 11: Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
After Tennessee’s shocking win over the Ravens in the divisional round last January, expect the ferociously competitive John Harbaugh to have his Ravens team hyped for this game.
Week 13: Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
We don’t know for sure when Tua Tagovailoa will take the reins from Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he has a good shot to be playing by Week 13. But if Tagovailoa is starting, we’ll get a matchup of the two top quarterbacks in the draft. Not only that, but the last loss Tagovailoa had was against Burrow’s LSU Tigers when LSU beat Alabama, 46-41. Tua and Burrow combined for seven touchdowns and 811 passing yards in that game.
Week 15: Cleveland Browns at New York Giants (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Odell Beckham Jr.’s first game against the Giants. Six months after the Giants signed Odell Beckham Jr. to a then-record-setting contract for a wide receiver, the team Odealt Beckham to the Browns. “They thought they’d send me here to die,” Beckham told Sports Illustrated in August. “They thought they sent me to the jungle and I wouldn’t be able to survive.” Don’t expect a pregame hug between Gettleman and Beckham.
If we get a full season, there will be a lot of great football.
Week 1 Kickoff Game: Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs (8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday, NBC)
This is a fantastic beginning to the season. Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs will face Deshaun Watson and the Texans, who held a 24-0 lead over the Chiefs in the divisional round before blowing it and losing 51-31. The Texans will be playing without DeAndre Hopkins, who was dealt in the offseason, but this game will still feature two of the leading MVP candidates for the 2020 in Mahomes and Watson. There’s also a justice aspect at work here. In last year’s kickoff game, the Chicago Bears tortured America by managing just a field goal in a 10-3 loss to the Packers. Now the 2020 opener will be torture for Bears fans, who will see the two quarterbacks they passed on to draft Mitchell Trubisky face off.
Week 1: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox)
Hopkins’s first game with the Arizona Cardinals doubles as the first game for the 49ers after they lost Super Bowl LIV. Richard Sherman guarding DeAndre Hopkins is football porn. Last year the Cardinals were one of the few teams to give the 49ers a close game in the regular season, and they figure to be far better in Year 2 of quarterback Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Week 3: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN)
Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson. Monday Night Football. The previous two NFL MVPs playing against one another in prime time. When these teams met in Week 3 of last year, the Chiefs won 33-28. The rematch might go down as the game of the year—and a preview to the AFC championship game.
Week 7: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
This will be the first meeting between Ben Roethlisberger and Lamar Jackson. Jackson took over as the starter after Baltimore’s bye in 2018, when the Ravens had already played the Steelers twice. Last year Roethlisberger missed all but two games with an elbow injury. The second of these games happens on Thanksgiving, which could be the best Thanksgiving game in years.
Week 7: San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
Jimmy Garoppolo returning to Foxborough to face … Jarrett Stidham? Brian Hoyer? Whoever it is, the outcome of this game will confirm long-held biases for some stubborn Pats fans and cause others to draw conclusions about whether Bill Belichick was right to get rid of Garoppolo.
Week 15: Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
Patrick Mahomes in the Superdome. Enough said.
The Monday Night Football schedule … is pretty decent?
In past seasons, ESPN seems to have gotten the short end of the billion-dollar broadcasting stick. While NBC was consistently getting better games and the ability to flex out of bad ones, ESPN was typically stuck with a weak Monday slate. This year doesn’t look so bad. Aside from the aforementioned Chiefs-Ravens megamatchup, we also get the Saints visiting Las Vegas for the Raiders’ first home game in Sin City (though if the Vegas strip isn’t reopened by September, Vegas might just be a city). Cardinals-Cowboys will be deceptively fun with Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray both returning to Texas, and the Bills-Patriots Week 16 matchup could tilt the AFC East away from the Patriots for the first time in 12 years.
There’s good news if you’re a Cowboys fan, not so much for the Lions diaspora.
Every team got at least one prime-time slot except for two: Washington and Detroit (though they’ll both play on Thanksgiving). The Texans play in prime time for the first game of the season, but don’t have another one scheduled after that aside from the early Thanksgiving game. The Colts, Panthers, Jaguars, and Dolphins are the other four teams who also have just one prime-time game scheduled. Conversely, the Cowboys have six, and eight teams have five prime-time games: the Chiefs, 49ers, Ravens, Packers, Patriots, Rams, Buccaneers, and Saints. All of those teams make sense: The Cowboys boast the NFL’s biggest fan base, and the Packers and Patriots are not far behind them. The Chiefs and 49ers just played in the Super Bowl. The Ravens were the AFC’s top seed. The Bucs added Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and the Rams added a $5 billion stadium that needs some national attention. Also the Patriots went from five prime-time games with Tom Brady last year to … five this year.