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NFL 2021 schedule release

The NFL released its 2021 schedule for preseason and regular season games on Wednesday night with TV specials that aired on NFL Network and ESPN2. This season will be the first 18 week regular season in league history with 17 games and a bye week per team. Because of this expansion, the preseason is now shortened to three games.

The regular season will kickoff on Thursday, September 9 when the Dallas Cowboys visit the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Most other teams will play on Sunday, September 12 with the exception of the Ravens and Raiders, who will play a Monday night game on ESPN. The Rams and Bears will be the opening Sunday Night Football game on NBC.

Thursday Night Football is back on Fox, the NFL Network, and streaming on Amazon this season and will run through Week 16. Two Thursday games will air on NBC-- the season opener between Dallas and Tampa and the Thanksgiving nightcap between Buffalo and New Orleans. While it has been known to feature some bad teams, there are always a few good games on this schedule. The first is the Rams at Seahawks during Week 5. These teams have some of the best offenses and better defenses in the league and will both be in contention in the NFC West. Another game between potential playoff contenders comes in Week 8 when Green Bay visits Arizona. Other games to look forward to are Baltimore at Miami (Week 10), Dallas at New Orleans (Week 13), and Kansas City at the L.A. Chargers (Week 15).

The Sunday Night Football slate features many great matchups. Week 2's Kansas City at Baltimore game will pit two of the most intriguing, yet contrasting, offenses in the NFL against each other. These teams are playing for the fourth consecutive season and always play closely contested games. Other notable SNF games this year include Tampa Bay at New England (Tom Brady's return, Week 4), San Francisco at the LA Rams ( Week 10), Cleveland at Baltimore (Week 12), San Francisco at Seattle (Week 13), Chicago at Green Bay (Week 14), New Orleans at Tampa Bay (Week 15), and Cleveland at Pittsburgh (Week17). The Week 18 game will be flexed from the scheduled games and will be announced at a later date.

The Monday Night Football schedule always features many premier games. This season, because of the new media rights contract, ESPN will only air one game in Week 1, as opposed to the usual doubleheader. The doubleheader will now come in Week 18, when two games will be flexed to national television and be played on Saturday, January 8. The MNF schedule starts with the Ravens visiting the Raiders and continues with a possible Rodgers-less Packers team hosting Detroit in Week 2, which is the first of many divisional rivalries on the ESPN schedule. Eagles-Cowboys, Raiders-Chargers, 49ers-Rams, Patriots-Bills, Rams-Cardinals, Vikings-Bears, and Browns-Steelers will also be featured on Monday night. The slate also includes games between non-divisional playoff contenders such as Indianapolis vs Baltimore, Buffalo vs Tennessee. New Orleans vs Seattle, and Seattle vs Washington.

After a year off, the NFL's international series will return with two games in London this year. The Jets will "visit" the Falcons in Week 5 and the Dolphins will "visit" the Jaguars in Week 6. As is the usual case, each team will have its bye week following those games. The NFL is planning to expand its international series in the coming years as the pandemic dissipates but will stick to these for 2021.

In the National TV schedule, get used to seeing a certain batch of teams. The maximum allotment of nationally televised games for a team in a season (before flexes) is five, and the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Chiefs, Ravens, Rams, Seahawks, Steelers, and Packers all have that many on the initial schedule. Obviously, the two teams from the Super Bowl (Bucs and Chiefs) have the most at stake and will be must-watch games. The Ravens, Rams, and Seahawks bring great offenses with physical, hard-nosed defenses that always make for entertaining matchups. The Steelers, Cowboys, and Packers have become national brands and will bring in viewers, but it is interesting that Green Bay received the full allotment amidst the Aaron Rodgers drama and that Dallas also received the full allotment after several underachieving seasons.

Thanksgiving will feature three games for the 15th consecutive season. The Lions, who started the tradition in 1934, will host the Bears on Fox during the first game at 12:30 PM ET. CBS will air the Raiders at the Cowboys at 4:30 PM ET. The Bills and Saints will play the night cap on NBC at 8:20 PM ET

While the normal schedule sometimes coincides with Christmas when it lands on a Sunday, there will be two games played on Saturday, December 25, 2021. The Browns will visit the Packers and the Colts will visit the Cardinals. This is the first Christmas Day doubleheader for the NFL since 2017, and both games will air on NFL Network.

A new wrinkle to the scheduling formula this year is the extra game. Teams will now play a 17th game against a team from the opposite conference based on the previous season's final divisional standings. The division matchups will be on a rotating basis, and the games in 2021 will feature AFC East vs. NFC East, AFC West vs. NFC North, AFC North vs. NFC West, AFC South vs. NFC South. The divisions will alternate between home and away.

An interesting outcome of this new schedule is that many teams now have later bye weeks--some even as late as Week 14. While the later bye week can interrupt the chemistry that has been building on the field, it can also be a useful rest for a team looking to make a playoff run. A bye week around Week 8 or 9 can be advantageous to teams needing to make adjustments or like to split the season into segments.

The 2021 NFL schedule is the most extensive so far and includes several big games between some of the leagues best and rising teams. Be sure to check out your teams complete schedule on its website or in my team-by-team schedule article on this site.

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