For the first time in history, the NFL will have an 18-week regular season in 2021. Each team will play 17 regular-season games with one bye, plus three preseason games.
Before we lay out the can’t-miss games of the year and what the holidays and prime-time games will look like, let’s see what is new and old in this year’s schedule.
For the first time in over a decade, fans will not be treated to an opening-week “Monday Night Football” doubleheader. Monday night doubleheaders should be played every week of the season. Get rid of the Thursday night games and give fans Monday night doubleheaders. Thursday night games have been awful products for years. The players cannot possibly be ready physically or mentally on Thursday after playing just four days earlier. We know football is punishing on players’ bodies, and the Thursday night games lack intensity and preparation. NFL teams usually get Monday and Tuesday off after Sunday games to let their bodies heal and give coaches time to prepare for the upcoming game. Coaches don’t have enough time to get a game plan together, install it at practice, travel to the game site and have their teams ready to play Thursday night. The NFL claims to worry about players’ safety. If true, give teams a full week to prepare before making them play again. It will make the game safer, more exciting and more enjoyable.
I love the idea of another week of the NFL. Who doesn’t? I am all for a Week 18, but how about sticking with 16 games? Give every team two byes and we still get 18 weeks of football. It will keep teams fresher down the stretch and give teams a week off in each half of the season. It probably leads to fresher players and fewer injuries and even more fantastic playoff games.
With an odd number of games this season, the AFC will benefit with nine home contests, while the NFC will have eight. This will flip-flop every year.
Also new this year are a few wrinkles in flex scheduling. Weeks 11-18 will have flex scheduling as we have known in the past, with the league allowed to change games to Sunday night. In Weeks 5-10, the league can choose to flex only two of those weeks. Fans will look forward to Weeks 15-18, as those weeks will feature Saturday games. In Week 15, five games have been “tagged,” and two will be chosen for a Saturday doubleheader. In Week 18, two games will be moved to a Saturday doubleheader and one to “Sunday Night Football.”
— The Bears never play two straight home or road games all season.
— The Panthers have a manageable start to the season:
Week 1: Jets
Week 2: Saints
Week 3: at Texans
Week 4: at Cowboys
Week 5: Eagles
Might Christian McCaffrey and the Panthers under second-year coach Matt Rhule start the season 4-1?
— Rough start for the new regime in Detroit?
Week 1: 49ers
Week 2: at Packers
Week 3: Ravens
Week 4: at Bears
Week 5: at Vikings
— Tough finish for the Steelers. They will need to get off to a solid start because Pittsburgh finishes the season like this:
Week 13: Ravens
Week 14: at Vikings
Week 15: Titans
Week 16: at Chiefs
Week 17: Browns
Week 18: at Ravens
— The Jaguars have a shot to win some games early in the season:
Week 1: at Texans
Week 2: Broncos
Week 3: Cardinals
Week 4: at Bengals
Week 5: Titans
Week 6: Dolphins
Can rookie coach Urban Meyer start his NFL career 5-1?
— Now let’s break down the schedule and find out when the can’t-miss matchups will take place, starting with the holidays. The Thanksgiving tripleheader in Week 12 will look like this:
Bears at Lions
Raiders at Cowboys
Bills at Saints
— Christmas falls on a Saturday this year, and the gift the NFL gives us is a holiday doubleheader in Week 16 featuring:
Browns at Packers at 4:30 p.m. ET
Colts at Cardinals at 8:15 p.m. ET
— Next let’s look at the Thursday night package. The best games are:
Week 5: Rams at Seahawks
Week 6: Buccaneers at Eagles
Week 7: Broncos at Browns
Week 13: Cowboys at Saints
Week 15: Chiefs at Chargers
— Moving to “Sunday Night Football,” which looks like an absolutely loaded slate for NBC even before any games are flexed, here are the highlights:
Week 2: Chiefs at Ravens
Week 4: Buccaneers at Patriots as Tom Brady returns to Foxboro.
Week 5: Bills at Chiefs in perhaps the AFC regular-season game of the year.
Week 7: Colts at 49ers
Week 10: Chiefs at Raiders
Week 12: Browns at Ravens
— The best games on the ESPN “Monday Night Football” slate this year are:
Week 1: Ravens at Raiders, as Las Vegas finally gets to christen Allegiant Stadium with Raider Nation in attendance.
Week 5: Colts at Ravens
Week 6: Bills at Titans
Week 10: Rams at 49ers
Week 13: Patriots at Bills
— Moving to the best of the best on Sunday afternoons in either time slot:
Jets at Panthers: We get the Sam Darnold bowl right away.
Steelers at Bills: Highmark Stadium will be on fire after last year’s success with no fans in the stands.
Browns at Chiefs: Might this be an AFC title game preview on opening weekend?
Rams at Colts: These teams are all in with their new quarterbacks and looking for a championship.
Raiders at Steelers: Two teams that will be looking to be in the AFC playoff mix.
Falcons at Buccaneers: Can the Falcons’ high-flying offense hang with the champs?
Cowboys at Chargers: Two teams looking to rebound after rough 2020 seasons.
Bears at Browns: Will Week 3 be Week 1 for Bears QB Justin Fields?
Washington at Bills: Two teams with high hopes after a breakthrough 2020.
Buccaneers at Rams: The Rams believe they are Super Bowl-good. The Bucs know they are.
Chiefs at Eagles: K.C. will travel to the Linc for a rare appearance in Philly.
Panthers at Cowboys: Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott are two of the best runners in the NFL, so look for these two young stars to put on a show.
Browns at Vikings: Classic AFC-NFC battle with tough, underrated QBs leading the way.
Steelers at Packers: Will we be watching Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers one final time?
Jets at Falcons: This London game might not be the best matchup, but who doesn’t love NFL football with their eggs and bacon?
Packers at Bengals: Will we see Joe Burrow against a legend in Rodgers or a young talent in Jordan Love?
49ers at Cardinals: If these teams can stay healthy, big things could happen.
Chargers at Ravens: Justin Herbert vs. Lamar Jackson, two of the best young guns in the league.
Cowboys at Patriots: Will these teams rebound from tough years and be in the playoff hunt?
Lions at Rams: Matthew Stafford faces the Lions, his former team and a franchise to which he gave everything he had.
Titans at Colts: The Colts have what it takes everywhere on the field with the exception of QB. Can Carson Wentz deliver Indy a Super Bowl? He has a great offensive line and running game to work with.
Raiders at Giants: Will Daniel Jones develop enough to get the ball downfield to his brand-new set of speedy receivers and a healthy Saquon Barkley?
Packers at Chiefs: A rematch of Super Bowl I. Will we be treated to a classic shootout between Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes?
Jaguars at Colts: Urban Meyer is in the NFL for the first time as a head coach. Can he dominate this league like he did at the college level?
Seahawks at Packers: When these teams get together, classic games usually occur.
Cowboys at Chiefs: Are we watching a Super Bowl preview at Arrowhead this week?
Eagles at Giants: Battle of NFC East contenders or pretenders?
Vikings at 49ers: Two teams looking to knock off the Bucs for NFC supremacy.
Steelers at Bengals: These teams do not like each other, and the division lead might be at stake.
Colts at Texans: Will the Texans be looking for their first win?
Ravens at Steelers: The most bitter, hard-hitting rivalry in the NFL, for my money.
Cowboys at Washington: Washington is the division champ, but the Cowboys are looking to take away that title.
Raiders at Chiefs: The Raiders always play tough at Arrowhead, so look out, AFC champs.
Bills at Buccaneers: The Bills are going Super Bowl or bust, and this will show if they are in the discussion.
Packers at Ravens: Rodgers has never played against Jackson. Let’s hope we see their first matchup here.
Steelers at Chiefs: Late-season AFC playoff seed scrambling will be all around this matchup.
Rams at Ravens: A great coaching showdown with Sean McVay and John Harbaugh matching wits.
This week will feature only division matchups, and plenty of playoff seeding scenarios are sure to be on the line.
Let’s hope the longest NFL regular season is the most exciting regular season.