The 2021 NFL schedule is out, and the regular season will begin with the Dallas Cowboys facing the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, Sept. 9. Week 1 also features a meeting of AFC powerhouses in the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, the New Orleans Saints beginning their post-Drew Brees era against the Green Bay Packers and new Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold facing his old New York Jets team. And the opening Monday Night Football game will see the Baltimore Ravens visit the Las Vegas Raiders.
The NFL also expanded the regular-season schedule to 17 games, which begins this year. The NFL had played a 16-game schedule since 1978. And the league will return to international play with the Atlanta Falcons set to host the Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars matching up with the Miami Dolphins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.
But what should we make of the 2021 slate? Who's the biggest winner from the schedule release? Which games should you circle on your calendar? And which rookie debut will be the most interesting? Our panel of NFL experts weighs in.
Skip to a question:
Which matchup do you have circled on your calendar?
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Bills at Patriots, Week 16. I really like the roster upgrades New England made this offseason through free agency and the draft. There are scheme-specific players there. And this matchup in Week 16 against Buffalo could have major implications in both playoff seeding and the AFC East race.
Mike Clay, fantasy writer: Browns at Chiefs, Week 1. Two of the league's best teams facing off in the first week? I'm here for it. The Browns are absolutely loaded on paper, and this is their opportunity to establish themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Cleveland will be eyeing a hot start after getting crushed 38-6 by the Ravens in Week 1 last season. The Browns will also be looking for revenge after being eliminated by the Chiefs in the playoffs last season.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Bills at Chiefs, Week 5. Buffalo's dream 2020 season fizzled quickly with a shaky performance against Kansas City in the AFC title game. This rematch should be tighter, with the Bills eager to take the proverbial next step. And by Week 5, Kansas City's reimagined offensive line should be in full swing.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Buccaneers at Patriots, Week 4. There weren't any Patriots fans in the stands last year in Foxborough, so it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun if Tom Brady's return had been last season. Good on the scheduling gods for waiting a year for the juiciest revenge game of the season -- whichever way you think the revenge should be directed.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Buccaneers at Patriots, Week 4. I guess I'm a sucker for storylines, but will there be a better one in 2021 than Brady's return to Foxborough in prime time? And if the numbers work out right, Brady could pass Drew Brees as the NFL's all-time leader in career passing yards. He'll need to average about 289 yards per game over the first four games to do it that night.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: Chiefs at Ravens, Week 2. I think there's a decent chance Lamar Jackson and the Ravens recapture the magic of their 2019 season and become one of the best teams in the league again. What better way to find out if they are for real this year than taking on Patrick Mahomes? Plus, I love watching two effective offenses that are this stylistically different.
Who or what is the biggest winner of the schedule release?
Bowen: The Week 1 prime-time slate. I see three really good prime-time games here. Dallas at Tampa Bay starts it off in the Thursday night opener with Dak Prescott and Brady. On Sunday night, we get to watch Matthew Stafford in his first game with the Rams' offense, and maybe we also see rookie quarterback Justin Fields taking snaps for Chicago. And on Monday night, it's Jackson against the Raiders in Vegas. That's good football.
Clay: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has the league's easiest projected schedule based on my evaluation of each 2021 roster. The Bucs face the NFC and AFC East divisions, which aren't particularly intimidating, and they'll also benefit from a relatively light slate of six divisional games against the Falcons, Panthers and Drew Brees-less Saints. Tampa Bay is set up nicely for another Super Bowl run.
Fowler: Dallas Cowboys. Nine of Dallas' opponents had a losing record last season (including the entire NFC East, of course). There are the Saints, Bucs and Chiefs, but not much else to scare you. Prescott should rebound nicely from his ankle surgery against a few defenses that don't mind giving up big passing yardage.
Graziano: Philadelphia Eagles. All of the NFC East teams got nice-looking draws (which, based on last year, they all could use), but the Eagles don't have to get on a plane after Week 10. Late-season travel is a big part of what players look at when they assess the schedule. I haven't dug in enough to know whether Philly is the biggest winner, but I did see that late-season travel note and thought it was worth pointing out here.
Seifert: Capacity for hype. The NFL added a new level to this ridiculous and beautiful day by teasing out the Week 1 schedule on its partners' morning shows. Instead of consuming one evening of the offseason, the NFL stole a full day's worth of attention. Impressive.
Walder: Carolina Panthers. The most important part of the order of a team's games is how much rest they have relative to their opponents. Carolina doesn't play any teams coming off a bye and overall has a plus-13-day rest differential relative to its opponents over the course of the year. That's tied for the highest rest differential among all team schedules since 2002 (though there is an extra game this year).
Which rookie debut are you most interested in, and why?
Bowen: Kyle Pitts, Eagles vs. Falcons. Pitts has a tight end frame but the traits of a wide receiver. There's matchup ability at all three levels of the field with scoring upside in the red zone. And I'm eager to see how new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith schemes him up in the passing game.
Clay: Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars vs. Texans. Granted it's a road game, but Lawrence is otherwise set up about as well as you can be in your NFL debut. The first overall pick will face what is arguably the league's shakiest defense on paper. Houston's defense was one of the league's worst last season and will be without offseason departures J.J. Watt and Benardrick McKinney, as well as suspended cornerback Bradley Roby. Lawrence is positioned for a hot start to his career.
Fowler: Najee Harris, Steelers at Bills. Pittsburgh's schedule is brutal, the offensive line is patchy and Ben Roethlisberger is pushing 40 years old, so counting out the Steelers is a convenient thing to do. But Harris is the franchise's best every-down back since Le'Veon Bell and will set a tone in Week 1.
Graziano: Zach Wilson, Jets at Panthers. I think this is a brutal break for Wilson, to have to beat Sam Darnold in Week 1. I'm not saying he can't do it, or that he won't turn out to be better than Darnold. But I've lived almost my whole life in New Jersey or Connecticut, and I know Jets fans. If Wilson struggles in Week 1 and Darnold lights it up in the same game, it is not going to be a fun week for the rookie.
Seifert: Travis Etienne, Jaguars vs. Texans. New coach Urban Meyer justified his decision to draft a running back in the first round, despite the presence of James Robinson and Carlos Hyde, by suggesting a Percy Harvin-like "hybrid" role for Etienne. I'm dubious. Harvin was a once-in-a-generation playmaker. But Week 1 will be our first opportunity to see what Meyer has in mind, assuming he doesn't give much of it away in the preseason.
Walder: Ja'Marr Chase, Bengals vs. Vikings. It's the Joe Burrow-Chase reunion. And it will be extra sweet after we missed Chase in 2020 (he opted out of the college season) and Burrow in the latter half of his rookie year (due to injury). They were a special pairing in college, and they'd jolt Cincinnati to life if they can keep it up at the next level.
Which win total over or under do you feel best about picking right now?
Bowen: Washington over 8 wins. Ron Rivera's team has one the best defenses in the league, and I see an upgraded offense that will have more explosive-play ability in the passing game. Give me Washington to top the eight-win mark -- and challenge for the NFC East title.
Fowler: Raiders over 7.5. If Vegas had shored up its defense last year, it might have been a 10-win team. If the Raiders can get a semblance of a pass rush and a pass defense, I like their chances to surpass last year's 8-8 clip. They've made moves to address those spots through the draft and free agency. The wild card is a rebuilt offensive line that lost some high-caliber talent, but they had to get younger, and that might rejuvenate the running game.
Graziano: Vikings over 8.5 wins. Aaron Rodgers might not be in the division anymore. The Bears have questions at QB, and their defense isn't what it used to be. The Lions are ... a ways off. Minnesota has stability at key positions and should be the best team in the NFC North if Rodgers isn't in Green Bay. And even if he is, I still think they can get to 9-8. Yeah, that's not a typo. Welcome to the 17-game season.
Seifert: 49ers under 10 wins. What's more likely? The 49ers go through a full 17-game season with Jimmy Garoppolo as their quarterback? Or, for one reason or another, Garoppolo gives way to rookie Trey Lance at some point during the season? Assuming you agree with the latter, 10 wins is a big number for a team that transitions to a rookie quarterback.
Walder: Steelers under 9 wins. With an aging Roethlisberger and a very questionable offensive line, this offense could get ugly fast. The defense was elite last season, but we know that side of the ball is less stable from year to year, particularly with a few players -- Cam Heyward and Joe Haden, among others -- reaching the twilight of their careers.
What's your early Super Bowl pick?
Bowen: Chiefs over Rams. Stafford elevates a passing game in L.A. that will be more vertical and more explosive. And we know the Rams' defense can play. But I still like the Chiefs to win it. Mahomes is the difference-maker here, with the playmaking ability to take over games.
Clay: Buccaneers over Browns. Tampa Bay will return its entire starting lineup from last season's Super Bowl run, and its young defense should only be better in 2021. Cleveland's offense was already very good last season, and the front office did an A-plus job overhauling and improving its defense during the offseason. As long as Baker Mayfield doesn't stumble, the Browns should be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Fowler: Packers over Bills. Let's set aside Green Bay's acrimony with Rodgers and remember the Packers have been on the brink for two years. A team with back-to-back 13-win seasons and NFC title game appearances returns its core, and it might be a contract extension away from another spite season from Rodgers. Buffalo has made a jump in each year with quarterback Josh Allen, coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane together. Here's to another.
Graziano: Bills over Rams. I have no idea who to pick in the NFC, but I don't want to pick the Bucs because I don't believe in repeats in this league. The Rams look good, and we'll go with them -- until the next time I'm asked for a pick. But the headline here is the first Super Bowl title in Bills history and a statue for McDermott in Buffalo.
Seifert: Chiefs over Buccaneers. It's a boring repeat, but it's an early pick. The Chiefs have crushed the offseason by overhauling their offensive line, and the Buccaneers have their entire starting lineup and all of their key coaches back from the team that caught fire in the 2020 playoffs.
Walder: Browns over Rams. Cleveland's roster is just overflowing with talent. From Myles Garrett to Odell Beckham Jr. to Denzel Ward to a strong offensive line, the Browns are stacked to the point where they should be able to win -- even without an elite-tier QB. The Rams have incredible upside with stars on defense and potential improvement on offense with Stafford now under center.