After all of the scheduling gymnastics necessary to complete the entire 2020 season on time -- hello, Tuesday and Wednesday games! -- the one thing we may be able to count on with the 2021 version released Wednesday night is that the NFL shouldn't need to double-check nasal swabs and shuffle travel plans as often to make it through the season and play the Super Bowl in Los Angeles on Feb. 13. Thank you, science and vaccines.
"No kidding," said Charlotte Carey, the NFL's director of broadcasting and a member of the scheduling team. "This is a much, much different situation."
Which is not to suggest that being freed from the worst of the pandemic made constructing this schedule a breeze. After international games fell by the wayside last year, they return in 2021 with two games in London, where a successful vaccine rollout convinced the NFL that games could safely be played there in front of what they hope will be a full stadium. (There is no game in Mexico City, where COVID is still a significant factor and there is no guarantee that the stadium could be full of fans.)
A 17th regular-season game -- accompanied by its own somewhat complicated scheduling formula -- arrives, with a ninth home game that will alternate between conferences (the AFC teams have it this year). And how to account for the fact that the league's reigning Most Valuable Player could be hosting a game show instead of playing with his championship-caliber team by the time the season starts?
Still, after navigating a global pandemic, the usual angst over how to share parking lots with baseball teams just doesn't seem so onerous. In some ways, this schedule was somewhat easier to produce than in other years. There were fewer blocks on stadiums than normal this year because massive concert tours are not yet back at full throttle. And the 17th game is not attached to any networks, the way the AFC and NFC games are attached to CBS and FOX, respectively. That made them, in the scheduling-department lingo, "free games," able to be deployed throughout the season, not just in prime-time slots, but to balance the network packages throughout the season.
More than 80,000 playable schedules were produced and the scheduling group reviewed nearly 500 of them by hand starting right after the Super Bowl. The NFL uses research and analytics to predict which games will capture an audience in which markets. One of the big points of emphasis this season was the Sunday afternoon packages -- the ones on CBS and FOX.
"One of our jobs is making sure we have something of interest for each fan in different markets," Carey said. "I think we did a really good job of the distribution of games on Sunday afternoons to keep fans engaged, so if they have a choice of playing golf or watching the games, they will want to watch the game."
That will certainly be true on the opening weekend, when the schedule gives a gift to fans: a double double-header -- double-headers on both CBS and FOX -- meaning every fan will get four games on Sunday afternoon.
The 2021 schedule has extra resonance because fans can, once again, start planning their travel to games. After greatly reduced attendance in only a handful of cities last season, the NFL is planning to have full stadiums across the league, a welcome return of the part of the game that was missed most in the pandemic season. The difference will be immediately apparent in the first week. The Los Angeles Rams and Las Vegas Raiders have the prime-time slots on the first weekend -- giving them a chance to finally show off the stadiums that opened last year with empty seats.
The best thing about this schedule, then, is its normalcy. We can obsess over road trips, the timing of opponents and the weather, instead of wondering if the games will even be played. With the serious public health issues that shadowed all of last season receding for now, here are the storylines that are blissfully all about football.
1) Tom Brady returns to Foxborough, Mass., in Week 4. Why so early for one of the biggest games in memory and a surefire ratings blockbuster? The NFL wrestled with this a bit. Every network clamored for it and the NFL felt strongly it belonged in prime time. Those were big considerations. What was not: the fear that Brady could get hurt, ruining the game if it happened later in the season.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime game," Carey said. "We really liked it early, giving us a huge start."
2) The first thing many coaches are looking at: where their bye week is, particularly because the regular season is expanding to 17 games without the addition of a second bye. The dreaded early byes are in Week 6 for the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets, who will be returning from London, and the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers. The NFL would have allowed bye weeks to start in Week 5 this season, but had ruled out Week 4 (when the byes started last year) as being too early in an 18-week schedule. One of the appeals of the schedule we got, Carey said, was that the byes didn't start until Week 6.
3) The NFL doesn't mind quarterback uncertainty, especially when the Packers have such a fantastic slate of opponents. FOX's "America's Game of the Week" on the first Sunday of the season is Packers at Saints -- neither of which can say for sure right now who their starting quarterback will be, after the offseason staredown of Aaron Rodgers and the retirement of Drew Brees. The Packers are scheduled for five prime-time appearances, including in Week 2 (Monday night versus the Detroit Lions) and Week 3 (Sunday night at the 49ers). The others come later, with a Thursday night game in Week 8 (at the Arizona Cardinals) and Sunday night games in Week 14 (versus the Chicago Bears) and Week 17 (versus the Minnesota Vikings). The late-season Sunday night games offer the safety net of flex scheduling if Rodgers is gone and the Packers are struggling, but the NFL believes the Packers are a draw even if Rodgers is hosting Jeopardy! this fall.
Rodgers' dissatisfaction with the Packers emerged late in the schedule-making process and did not complicate planning as much as most of us might suspect.
"You can't do that much with the information," Carey said. "We don't know what the downstream impacts will be -- where will he go, will he retire, will he return? Green Bay is still Green Bay. The Packers are a huge national brand. People will still watch the Packers. We were still all in on Green Bay this year."
4) You can usually read the tea leaves to determine which team the schedulers expect will make a big leap this season. Last year, they correctly forecast that the Buffalo Bills would supplant the New England Patriots in the AFC East, giving the Bills four prime-time games after having only one in 2019. This year's pick: the Cleveland Browns, who were originally scheduled for just two prime-time games last year but this year have three under the lights. Plus, they open the season against the Kansas City Chiefs in the late Sunday afternoon national window and play one of the most high-profile games of the year on national television, Christmas Day against the Packers.
5) Trevor Lawrence might be the most eagerly awaited quarterback to enter the NFL since Peyton Manning (or at least Manning's successor, Andrew Luck), but that isn't reflected in the Jacksonville Jaguars' initial schedule. They are slated for just one prime-time appearance, the Week 4 Thursday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, continuing a stretch dating back to 2012 without a Sunday or Monday night game. The NFL is happy with the Thursday night game because it features the last two first overall draft picks, and the Jaguars are also expected to have a national preseason game to showcase Lawrence.
"I think they have the opportunity to play their way into prime time," Carey said. "We are really excited about Trevor Lawrence. We would love to see them play their way into prime time."
6) Last year's schedule produced some oddities that are usually avoided, like the five teams that played three straight road games and the 10 teams that had three straight home contests. This season, the quirkiest schedule belongs to the Baltimore Ravens, who play four games in a row at home beginning in Week 5 and have a bye week in between. After an Oct. 3 tilt in Denver, the Ravens will sleep in their own beds until they leave for a Nov. 11 game in Miami.
GAMES TO WATCH
You could make an outstanding viewing plan by watching nothing but the Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. They are here, plus a few more suggestions.
- Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 1): The blockbuster season opener will offer a very good early look at how much the Buccaneers' offense improved during an offseason together and how much better the Cowboys' defense can be after an offseason revamp.
- Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (Week 3): Nobody had more injury hardship than the 49ers last year. This is an outstanding litmus test for a team many expect will bounce back to Super Bowl contention.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots (Week 4): There is no bigger game this season. Or any other season.
- Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 5): The AFC Championship Game rematch. Can the Bills get over the hump?
- Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 9): Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes meet for the first time ... we think? Keep your fingers crossed for peace in Green Bay and that we get what might be the game of the year.
- Dallas Cowboys at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 11): Dak Prescott returns, but this is really a test for the Cowboys' new-look defense.
- Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 14): How much better is the Bucs' offense after a year together? Can Josh Allen handle the Bucs' defense? A gauge of each team's championship hopes.
- Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns (Week 14): As Ben Roethlisberger's career nears its end, this could be the rivalry that defines the AFC North for years to come.
- Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers (Week 15): Because we all need some fun -- and Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert is nearly as fun to watch as Mahomes, especially in a late-season game that could have playoff implications.
- Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams (Week 15): The Rams sacked Russell Wilson five times in their playoff win last year. Does Matthew Stafford's arrival portend the Rams' ascension back to the top of the NFC's toughest division?
- Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets (Week 16): The first of what could be many meetings between the top two picks in this year's draft, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.