NFL schedule-ology 2021

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ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – JANUARY 16: Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates after defeating the Baltimore Ravens during the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Bills Stadium on January 16, 2021 in Orchard Park, New York. The Bills defeated the Ravens 17-3. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The NFL’s schedule release day is more than a simple sequencing of your favorite team’s 17 opponents.

It’s plan that trip day. It’s imagine the possibilities day. And this year, it’s also just the latest reminder that “normal” is soon (hopefully) returning to a football stadium near you.

Most important, the new NFL schedule is the best reflection on this half of the calendar of what kind of squad the football world thinks your team has this year. Better than what your brother-in-law said during Mother’s Day. Way better than anyone’s power rankings.

The measure of a team in May is primetime games. It’s not necessarily how successful your team will be, but how interesting they will be. The NFL wants the most people watching their games. When your team is what “most” people want to watch, there are few better feelings in fandom.

No reason to wait until Wednesday for the good vibes. We’ve got the primetime list right this second.

Here’s how this works:

  • The field is 50 games: the 17 on Sunday Night (not including Week 18), the 17 on Monday Night (none week 18), the 15 games on Thursday (one each for the first 15 weeks) and the Christmas Day night game (which is absolutely happening). I reserve the right to give myself credit for any other night games that may end up scheduled.
  • No Saturday games are included (except the aforementioned Christmas Day game). Also, there will be no predictions for the Lions and Cowboys hosted Thanksgiving afternoon games.
  • Teams can, as of this season, have up to seven prime time games. I’m won’t go quite that far with any team. More on that below.
  • Divisional games are not listed with a specific home team. (Allows me to call myself correct no matter which team hosts. Doeth the work, maketh the rules)
  • No predictions on which games will be on Sunday, Monday or Thursday night (though some specifics will be noted). This is just the list of all primetime games.
  • Each game is listed only once, but could fit more than one category.

HISTORICAL LOCKS

  • Cowboys vs. Eagles
  • Packers vs. Bears
  • Ravens vs. Steelers

The Bears and Packers have played at least one night game for 15 consecutive seasons. The Eagles and Cowboys have a 18 year streak going. These are happening again. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played a night game every year, but two, since 2006. The ‘two’ are fairly recent (2016 and 2019) and I’m a bit nervous about this one with the whole AFC North being interesting as a whole for once. I’ll give this rivalry one last ride.

THE GOLD STANDARDS

  • Broncos at Cowboys
  • Raiders at Cowboys
  • Cowboys at Buccaneers
  • Cowboys at Vikings
  • Cowboys vs. Washington
  • Packers at Niners
  • Packers at Chiefs
  • Packers at Saints
  • Rams at Packers
  • Steelers at Packers

The Packers have not played less than the maximum of five night time games since 2013. For the Cowboys, you have to go all the way back to 2006. With Dak Prescott back, the Cowboys again check all the boxes for an elite night time draw.

The Packers are, obviously, a conundrum fit for Final Jeopardy. Peter King addressed the issue in his column this week and thinks Green Bay still gets treated as if Aaron Rodgers is playing a full season. The caveat is that the Packers could have their Sunday night games scheduled late in the season, so the league can flex out of a Jordan Love created disaster. That makes sense to me, so I’ll continue giving the Packers their customary plethora of primetime starts.

But will the NFL actually schedule the mega-draw teams for seven night games? I’m curious to find out myself. I initially set up the primetime grid with seven games for the Cowboys and Packers–among others–and discovered how quickly the night game options ran out for everyone else. I think the NFL will schedule top teams for six primetime games and leave the option to flex into a 7th. Regardless, some new precedents will be set with this schedule.

THE BILLS SECTION

  • Steelers at Bills
  • Bills vs. Patriots
  • Bills at Chiefs
  • Bills at Bucs
  • Bills vs. Jets

First of all, I think Bills-Bucs is your 2021 season opener. I laid out the field for it here. Only Dallas has a sizable chance of getting in the way.

Outside of the Jets game, these all feel like no-brainers. I think NBC really likes the Steelers-Bills matchup and will run it back for a third straight year on Sunday Night, but much earlier in the season just in case Pittsburgh tanks. Don’t be stunned if Bills-Chiefs is not a night game because CBS wants it for a late doubleheader game (Would not be a knock against the game. Just the opposite).

The Bills have a handful of quality opponents that won’t move the needle a ton for a national game (Dolphins, Colts, Washington, Saints, Titans). Any could easily replace one of the opponents above or even give Buffalo an additional night game. I’d bet big on one of these games ending up in the late season Saturday flex category.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

  • Jaguars at Jets
  • Dolphins vs. Jets
  • Giants vs. Washington
  • Giants vs. Eagles
  • Giants at Bears

Even after three consecutive seasons with at least 11 losses, the Giants still had three primetime games last year. It’s been over a decade since they’ve played less. I’ve got them down for three again in 2021.

The only year since 2007 where the Jets had less than two evening games was 2017 when they were all but advertising a season of tanking for a quarterback (spoiler alert: that QB did not work out). I love the Jags-Jets Top Two Picks Bowl for an early season Monday nighter. The Jets have also played an AFC East night game every season except one since 2007.

SUPER BOWL LOVE

  • Buccaneers at Patriots
  • Buccaneers vs. Saints
  • Buccaneers at Eagles
  • Bears at Buccaneers
  • Chiefs vs. Raiders
  • Chiefs vs. Chargers
  • Chiefs at Ravens
  • Browns at Chiefs

If any team gets scheduled for seven primetime games it will be Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champion Bucs. The Brady Returns To Foxboro game is a lock for a mid-November ratings period Sunday nighter–same as all those Colts-Pats Peyton Manning v. Brady games.

The Chiefs will be an elite national TV draw as long as Patrick Mahomes is standing. It’s just a matter of picking which six (or seven games) land at night. The opponent almost doesn’t matter.

HOW ABOUT THAT AFC NORTH

  • Ravens vs. Browns
  • Steelers vs. Browns
  • Bengals vs. Browns
  • Chargers at Steelers
  • Ravens at Raiders

I have the AFC North teams making the league’s second most primetime appearances with 15 total. It’s even more than the “Dear Lord, them again?!?” NFC East (Just 14 for the Cowboys, Giants and friends. The AFC East wins my list with 16).

Maybe it’s because I was just in Cleveland for the draft, but the Browns feel like this year’s HOT team (Yep. Probably kiss of death). This is a combo of Cleveland ascending while Pittsburgh is on the last year before a likely descent. The four night time games for Lamar Jackson and one for Joe Burrow both feel low, if anything. It’s a good year to be watching football in the Rust Belt.

HELLO, OLD FRIEND

  • Patriots at Panthers
  • Lions at Rams
  • Cardinals at Browns

Cam Newton heading back to Carolina seems too much fun to pass up, especially with a ratings devouring brand like the Patriots in tow. I also like the former Oklahoma teammate duel when Kyler Murray faces Baker Mayfield. I almost added Jets-Panthers to the this list with Sam Darnold facing his old team. If only the game were in the Meadowlands instead of Charlotte.

Lions-Rams is a fun early season Thursday nighter to revisit the biggest QB swap of the offseason (Jared Goff for Drew Stafford). These games also get Detroit and Carolina their one and only primetime spots of the season.

DIVISION GAMES JUST BECAUSE

  • Dolphins vs. Patriots
  • Titans vs. Colts
  • Rams vs. Niners
  • Rams vs. Seahawks
  • Cardinals vs. Seahawks
  • Saints vs. Falcons

Most years, there are at least 20 divisional games as part of the primetime lineup. 2018 was an exception with only 17. I have 21 division rivalries kicking off at night and for the first season with 18 weeks of games, that seems about right.

Arizona and Seattle has played a night game six of the last eight seasons. It’s 10 of 12 years for the Falcons and Saints. The Giants and Eagles are 12 of the last 14 years. The Rams have played no less than five night games since the season after Sean McVay took over. I’m shorting them with only four this year.

These should be mostly safe bets.

HANGING ONTO PAST GLORY

  • Patriots at Chargers
  • Vikings at Niners
  • Saints at Seahawks

I thought the NFL would bail on the Patriots without TB12 last season. Big mistake. New England’s dreadful season still made five stops on your late night screen. With a new QB on the horizon, a free agent splurge and a bevy of opt-outs returning, I feel safe predicting five more primetime appearances for the Fighting Hoodies in 2021.

The Niners won’t likely be using their first round quarterback this year, but their roster still has more than enough Super Bowl scent from two seasons ago to receive national TV love. This could easily be the beginning of the end for the Saints, but they’ll still have a healthy dose of night games simply based on their elite opponents (I have them appearing at night against the Bucs, Packers, Seahawks. The Giants, Cowboys and Patriots are also high level possibilities).

FEELING OBLIGATED

  • Dolphins at Titans
  • Seahawks at Colts

The AFC South is going dominate the NFL in 2021 when it comes to being forgettable. That’s even considering the division includes a likely playoff team in Indy trying to refurbish gently used former franchise quarterback Carson Wentz.

However, the Titans and Colts are very likely playoff teams and these are both games against other very likely playoff teams.

GOOD, BUT LEFT OUT

  • Seahawks at Steelers
  • Steelers at Chiefs
  • Packers at Ravens
  • Cowboys at Patriots
  • Cowboys at Chiefs

Don’t discount the need for the NFL to put elite on elite matchups at 4:25pm. That’s still viewed as a “national” window. CBS and FOX pay the bills just like NBC and ESPN. It’s one of the hardest parts of predicting the top games on the schedule. Last year, Chiefs-Saints, Chiefs-Bucs and Packers-Bucs were NOT primetime games.

THE GOOSE EGG

  • Houston Texans

We don’t know if DeShaun Watson will play at all this season. If he does, it might not even be for the Texans. What we do know is the NFL wants no part of this team discussed for three hours on a national platform. Sunday at 1pm is Houston’s shadow for 2021.

This is always a fun exercise. Interested to see how many I get right. I’m fairly sure, of all the mock schedules you’ll read, this one was the best.

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