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The full 2021 NFL schedule is here!
While it’s a minor landmark in the lead-up to the regular season, I can’t help but get a little juiced while seeing what’s to unfold for the upcoming football calendar, even amid the unknowns.
One of the most crucial and new unknowns this year is the addition of the 17th game. Plenty of questions will follow the NFL’s decision to tack a game onto the schedule.
My most pressing question, however, is whether teams will take more aggressive stances to rest players. We won’t know the answer to that until the end of 2021. But that might be the one wrinkle I’m most interested in getting the answer to. All that said, let’s all admit that everything involved with this new game is mostly an unknowable reality.
My second question is how long it’s going to take for me to stop dropping now-obsolete records like 8-8, 10-6, 5-11, etc. There’s a much easier answer to that one: A long, long time.
Let’s run through some of my initial, rough-draft thoughts on the schedule as we see it now. Nothing is set in stone and there’s much more to study but this is a time for excitement and reckless take-tossing.
I realize there are some flaws in projecting strength of schedule (even by using the superior projected win-total method) in mid-May. But ... it’s mid-May in the NFL calendar, so cut me some slack with these just-for-fun rough-draft thoughts.
Five Strength of Schedule Winners
Bring everybody back from their Super Bowl win. Play in a division with a host of teams in transition. Get a cakewalk schedule. Profit.
The Eagles have the easiest schedule in the NFC East. While I’d still favor Washington and Dallas (in that order) to win the division, maybe this makes life easier on an offense that could be exciting in 2021.
The AFC South has a chance to be a bad division this year with the Texans in shambles and the Jaguars still figuring it out. The Colts have the easiest schedule and a good infrastructure. I’m still not sure that I’m in on Carson Wentz but I do find myself trusting the Colts.
Not only do the Cowboys have an easy schedule, but they’re also such an easy offense to stack pieces from in best-ball formats. I’m pushing my chips back in on this scoring unit this year.
The other AFC North teams rank first, fourth and seventh in schedule difficulty. The Browns stand out way down the list at 24th. This is a team to bet on this year after a pristine offseason.
Five Strength of Schedule Losers
Pittsburgh might be the most difficult team to figure out heading into 2021. The offense has good pieces but a questionable aging quarterback and troubling line. Now they’re slated to have the most difficult schedule. Still not sure where I’ll come down on Pittsburgh or their fantasy players by September but this might push me to let someone else get invested in that discovery journey.
Las Vegas’ dismantling of their offensive line has me feeling uneasy about the whole unit. A tough slog of a schedule is adding to that.
Cincinnati just might be my favorite value offense this season. With a truly great wide receiver trio, a projected workhorse back, and an ascending quarterback, they could be this year’s version of the Dallas Cowboys. This schedule gives me some pause but I can galaxy-brain myself into thinking this team facing better teams will have them in pass-friendly game scripts more often.
With the sixth-most difficult schedule, it’s tough for me to see this team being a winning operation even if Justin Fields makes them instantly more watchable. Hopefully, that keeps the Bears throwing the ball at a good rate, which is key for Allen Robinson's target total.
Nothing is looking good for the Texans. You know most of it already but now they have the fifth-most difficult schedule. Not ideal. I’ll maybe be interested in Brandin Cooks at a draft discount this year but that is about it.
Five Fantasy Games I Cannot Wait For
Cowboys at Buccaneers - Week 1
We’re starting off with a bang this season. We know what we’re getting with the Bucs, even if they could be more high-powered after a year of experience together. But I’m glad we’re getting an early glimpse of Dak Prescott coming off his injury because the Cowboys are an offense we should all be excited about.
Chiefs at Ravens - Week 2
We’ve gotten Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes showdowns before but I’m eager to see this one especially. The Ravens adding Rashod Bateman gives this team a potentially new dimension the Jackson-led Ravens have never had: A true No. 1 receiver. It might be early for Bateman to make that kind of difference but I’m still bullish on Baltimore’s offense being better in Year 3.
Packers at Chiefs - Week 9
We got cheated out of an Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes matchup thanks to the latter’s injury in 2019. Rodgers’ drama with the Packers better not let us lose out on it again.
Rams at 49ers - Week 10
The Matthew Stafford-led Rams are sure to provide some fireworks but I’m equally excited for the Trey Lance version of the 49ers. I’m expecting him to be starting by this point of the season. We aren’t talking enough about how San Francisco is loaded at pass-catcher with George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel.
Bills at Buccaneers - Week 14
We shouldn’t be expecting much dropoff from the Buffalo Bills offense and as mentioned earlier, Tampa Bay could only be stronger in 2021. This has a shot to be the highest-scoring game of the season and we’re getting it deep into the fantasy campaign.
Five Elite-Tier Revenge Games
Buccaneers at Patriots - Week 4
A revenge game for the record books. If you think both alphas don’t want to come out of this game getting the win over the other, frankly, you’re delusional. Fresh off a Super Bowl win and atop a loaded roster, Tom Brady will be the heavy favorite over his old coach. But the Bucs won’t have an easy ride into New England, with the Cowboys, Falcons, and Rams preceding this matchup. Bill Belichick won’t make this a cakewalk either.
One man will have glorious revenge; the other a mere frosty embrace after the game.
Lions at Rams - Week 7
The ultra-rare double Revenge Game. Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford will both face off against their old teams a mere few months after a blockbuster trade saw them switch places. Of course, Goff has much more reason to want to stick it to his old team, since he was the one who was given up on. If he manages to get revenge on the Rams, it’ll be a miracle. The Lions figure to be one of the worst teams in football.
Smarter money is that Stafford has a few moments in his new uniform that make Lions fans get misty-eyed remembering days of old.
Jets at Panthers - Week 1
The Sam Darnold Revenge Tour is either going to start off white-hot or have the bus pop a flat tire before the show begins.
In most cases, it’s best not to “look back in anger,” but maybe just this once, Darnold should consider it. A Jets organization that never did right by him during his three-year stint has given his replacement in Zach Wilson several new receivers, a first-round guard, and a non-joke of a coach to work with. If Darnold can channel some of that rage into pristine passes, he has the supporting cast in Carolina to rip up his old team in Week 1. New York didn’t put nearly the same effort into fixing their busted defense.
Texans at Cardinals - Week 7
It’s really not nice to kick someone while they’re down but that might not stop DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt from taking a few swipes at their old, now-lifeless team. I don’t think either one of them has any regrets that they aren’t on Houston’s roster now — and who could blame them? Still, Hopkins at least should be bitter about the way he was valued by this organization. Given the state of the Texans roster, Hopkins could catch several long bombs on this secondary, and Watt could drop whichever poor soul is behind center into the dirt for a sack or two.
Patriots at Panthers - Week 9
If the Patriots can’t win their Revenge Game against Tom Brady earlier in the season they can at least get their starting quarterback sweet vengeance later on down the line, provided Cam Newton makes it this far into the season. I’d bet this game will be pretty competitive, as both teams figure to slide into the 7-to-10-win range. The Panthers haven’t exactly settled their quarterback situation since dumping Newton. You know he’d love to drop a few hammers in the stadium of the team he helped thrust into the national spotlight.
The Potentially Problematic Primetime Team
Every year there’s a team that the schedule-makers miss on by thinking they’ll be good and throwing them all over the primetime slate. Usually, this is reserved for the Bears. While the Packers would easily take the cake among the 10 teams with five-plus primetime games if Aaron Rodgers is gone, and the Steelers are a current favorite, the New Orleans Saints are a darkhorse pick.
The national television audience is going to see a lot of this team. New Orleans will play in two Monday Night Football games (vs. Seahawks and Dolphins), one Thursday Night Football game (vs. Cowboys), one Sunday Night Football game (vs. Buccaneers), and on Thanksgiving (vs. Cowboys).
The league is embracing variance with those slots, which is oddly perfect for a team that might be willingly starting Jameis Winston in 2021.
I haven’t quite figured out what to think of the Saints this year just yet. That’s the standard operating procedure when a team loses a Hall of Fame quarterback and doesn’t have a direct replacement. New Orleans figures to alternate between or even platoon Winston and Taysom Hill in 2021. Those two guys could not be any more different stylistically as quarterbacks and the way they’d affect the players around them. I don’t think either is a good solution for the team but we need to figure out how this will play out for fantasy football purposes.
Theoretically, we want Winston to win the job and keep it because he’ll feed stars like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas while perhaps elevating a sleeper like Adam Trautman. The Hill experiment has its fun moments but it would be a dagger to Kamara’s value and limit the passing game to a Thomas-only situation.
One way or another, we’ll get five nationally broadcasted looks at how this offense tries to find itself post-Brees. And right now, I’m not that excited to watch it given the very real odds it goes horribly wrong.