We’ve reached the true lull period of the NFL offseason, yet the league still managed to get some buzz going Wednesday night when it announced its full 2021 schedule. This is the time of year when the NFL media industrial complex has to work to make football a year-round sport. Insiders like NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and ESPN’s Adam Schefter report dates of the official release the same way they would transactions between teams or other legitimate intel. NFL teams’ social media units go all out putting together creative ways to announce their schedules. And the reveal itself happens on prime-time television. Many of those times and dates were leaked well before the league made its official announcement. (Which isn’t a huge deal, considering we’ve known every team’s opponents since the end of last season, just not the exact order of the schedule.)
This year’s schedule is significant in that it will be the first in which the NFL will hold a 17-game regular season, expanding the schedule for the first time since 1978. Below are some immediate thoughts following the NFL’s schedule release.
Brady vs. Belichick is happening early … perhaps too early.
Despite not facing off during their first seasons without one another, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s legacies were pitted against one another in spirit, similar to how Michael Jordan and LeBron James never shared a court together. For Week 4’s Sunday Night Football slot, we’ll get to see Brady’s Buccaneers face Belichick’s Patriots, and I’m sure someone will find a way to use the result of an early regular-season game to determine who was more responsible for the Patriots dynasty. (Brady could potentially break the all-time passing yards record by Week 4, so perhaps that’s why the NFL picked this week.) But let’s pump the brakes on that now, since there’s nothing really hanging in the balance when the two teams meet in Week 4. If last season is any indication, we probably won’t even really know whether either team is good or not—the Patriots opened 2-2 and looked like they could be a contender prior to Cam Newton’s COVID-19 bout; the Bucs started 3-1 but were inconsistent and didn’t really look like an eventual Super Bowl champion. This year’s matchup could have been even more intriguing had it been scheduled later, with the potential for the winner to knock the other out of the playoffs or spoil a divisional title run.
London games are back.
After a one-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, the NFL’s international series resumes this season with two contests in London. The Jaguars keep being pushed on our British counterparts; they’ll be making their eighth London trip this fall. Even with Trevor Lawrence on board for the Urban Meyer–Tim Tebow circus, I’m not sure if I’ll be waking up early to watch the Jaguars play the Dolphins. At least our friends in London will get to see the Falcons—boasting Kyle Pitts and Julio Jones (for now)—play the Jets during the week before. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it is the home team. Because of the schedule’s expansion to an odd number, NFC teams are already down a home game, but with the London visit counting toward that total, the Falcons will play only seven true home games.
The Chiefs start off with a bang.
A trio of good teams who lost to the Chiefs last season will get a shot at them again early in the ’21 regular season:
• Week 1: Browns at Chiefs
• Week 2: Chiefs at Ravens
• Week 5: Bills at Chiefs (SNF)
In addition to those early-season matchups, the Chiefs will face the Steelers, Packers, Titans, and Washington Football Team—all playoff teams from a year ago. Add in Kansas City’s AFC West opponents (the Chargers took Kansas City to OT early in the year, while the Raiders beat them) and this looks like arguably the toughest slate in the league.
The Chiefs seemed to get everyone’s best shot last year; nine of their regular-season games were decided by one score or less (8-1). K.C. is a favorite to win the AFC crown again, but it certainly won’t be a cakewalk.
Despite heavy QB turnover, there are only a few revenge matchups.
Remember that Schefter tweet back in January, when he put the over/under of teams changing QBs this offseason at 18? Well, eight of the QBs he speculated would switch squads are either on new teams or retired, and the fates of a few others aren’t entirely clear. The result of all that movement is the potential for some awkward reencounters this season.
Only a handful are set to happen during the regular season. Kicking things off in Week 1 is the Sam Darnold Bowl, when the Jets visit the Panthers. Jared Goff, meanwhile, will have a chance to get revenge on the Rams in Week 7 (technically this is also a revenge game for Matthew Stafford, though he parted with the Lions on much better terms). Despite all the QB turnover, it’s surprising that there’s only a pair of revenge games on the schedule.
First-round QB matchups will be plentiful … potentially.
For now, the only rookie starters we can assume will face off are Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, the QBs chosen back-to-back at the top of the draft who will presumably lead the Jaguars and Jets, respectively, into a Week 16 meeting.
But there are some other rookie duels on the menu as well, if some first-year passers can win starting jobs early enough. We could get Trey Lance vs. Justin Fields in Week 8 (49ers at Bears), Lance vs. Lawrence in Week 11 (49ers at Jaguars), and Mac Jones vs. Wilson (twice, when the Patriots and Jets play in Weeks 2 and 7).
If Aaron Rodgers isn’t playing for the Packers, their prime-time slots aren’t as glamorous.
Rodgers is pretty upset with the Packers, and it remains unclear whether the reigning MVP will return to Green Bay next season. There’s a chance that the one-time Super Bowl champion has played his last down in Lambeau Field and winds up hosting Jeopardy! full time or gets traded to another team. If Rodgers leaves the Packers this offseason, then the NFL has a scheduling conundrum on its hands. Green Bay has five prime-time matchups.
The NFL can flex the Packers out of some late-season prime-time slots, but can’t do the same in the first half of the schedule. We could potentially see at least two games of Jordan Love or Blake Bortles or whomever the Packers choose to replace Rodgers under center against Jared Goff’s Lions (Week 2), Jimmy Garoppolo’s or Trey Lance’s 49ers (Week 3), and Kyler Murray’s Cardinals (Week 8). Those matchups will lose their sparkle if Rodgers isn’t under center.
The Saints have a bunch of prime-time games—one year too soon.
The Saints will be in prime time:
• Week 7: Monday Night Football at Seahawks
• Week 12: Thanksgiving vs. Bills
• Week 13: Thursday Night Football vs. Cowboys
• Week 15: SNF at Buccaneers
• Week 16: MNF vs. Dolphins
… all without QB Drew Brees, who retired earlier this offseason after 15 seasons with New Orleans. That development alone makes imagining the Saints in a big-time game slot very strange. But it’s a shame that we won’t get Brees on an NBC broadcast this season. Brees signed a contract to become a studio analyst for Football Night in America starting in 2022. So Brees won’t be critiquing New Orleans’s performances, Sean Payton’s play calls, or the play of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill this season. It’s not even clear right now whom the Saints will start at QB this season—or whether they can keep up their high-wire act as one of the league’s most aggressive franchises. There’s a chance that by 2022, New Orleans has fewer prime-time games, and that’d be disappointing.
Good news: The Week 1 Monday Night Football double-header is gone. Bad news: There’s a Week 18 Saturday double-header—and teams don’t know who’s playing.
Other than on holidays, playing multiple games in special prime-time slots is weird. The NFL’s run of Week 1 MNF double-headers wasn’t as great in practice as it was in theory, and the league wisely moved on from it. Viewership numbers for the MNF double-header drastically dipped last year, and prior to 2019 hadn’t been impressive. Considering second matchups kicked off after 10 p.m. ET, it’s unsurprising viewership hadn’t been strong.
It remains to be seen whether the double-header method will be more entertaining during the final week of the season, where four unlucky teams vying for the playoffs will reportedly be told they’re losing a day of rest and practice on the Monday before the game on Saturday. Reason suggests allowing teams their full allotment of rest and prep days before a season-defining matchup is even more critical in Week 18 than it is at any point in the season. So, yeah, this seems really weird. The stakes of the contests will be high. The games themselves may be sloppy.
The spotlight will be on the NFC West.
The Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks are each scheduled to play in five prime-time games, tied for the league high. The Cardinals are set to play in three prime-time contests. The NFC West is set up to be the most exciting division in football entering the 2021 season after looking like one of the NFL’s best groups last year. The division is loaded with QB talent following the additions of Stafford (Rams) and Lance (49ers) this offseason, who join Murray and Russell Wilson to form a very strong quartet of noteworthy signal-callers. If last season was any indication, the division should produce enthralling matchups once again in 2021.