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Breaking down the NFL's 2021 prime-time schedule, from Bucs-Patriots to Jets-Texans

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The NFL released its 2021 schedule Wednesday night, revealing each network's prime-time slate.

As far as the quality of games go, the pecking order for the NFL's three prime-time nights has traditionally featured "Sunday Night Football" at the top and "Thursday Night Football" at the bottom, and it's the same this season. The "Monday Night Football" slate is lacking this year, though, with no standouts like last year's Ravens-Chiefs showdown.

As usual, teams are limited to five prime-time games per season, and one of those will always be a Thursday night game. This year, there are 10 teams hitting that limit: the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.

This year's schedule is notable for being the last in the league's current TV deal, with some major changes coming in 2022. The most notable is that "Thursday Night Football" will cease being a Fox-NFL Network-Amazon Prime Video joint effort, with the NFL opting to try a streaming-only setup through Amazon.

Another change is that ESPN will finally be allowed to flex Monday matchups starting in Week 12, which is something we might wish the network could do later this season.

Here's a look at each prime-time slate this season:

'Thursday Night Football' (Fox, NFL Network, Amazon Prime)

The NFL kicks off its regular season with a fun Cowboys-Bucs matchup (Tom Brady vs. America's Team will likely give the league a strong start, ratings-wise) and some solid matchups follow. You have last year's No. 1 draft pick vs. this year's in Week 4, and Patriots vs. Falcons (Week 11) will never not be intriguing.

The full TNF slate:

Week 1: Cowboys at Buccaneers (NBC)

Week 2: Giants at Washington

Week 3: Panthers at Texans

Week 4: Jaguars at Bengals

Week 5: Rams at Seahawks

Week 6: Buccaneers at Eagles

Week 7: Broncos at Browns

Week 8: Packers at Cardinals

Week 9: Jets at Colts

Week 10: Ravens at Dolphins

Week 11: Patriots at Falcons

Week 12: Thanksgiving (see below)

Week 13: Cowboys at Saints

Week 14: Steelers at Vikings

Week 15: Chiefs at Chargers

Week 16: 49ers at Titans

The best TNF game: Chiefs at Chargers

The best TNF games are always the ones that go completely off the rails (in a good way), and this one has potential. Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert exchanging bombs against defenses with half a week of prep sounds like recipe for the best kind of chaos, and could have significant playoff ramifications that late in the season.

The worst TNF game: Panthers at Texans

Sam Darnold vs. TBD, feel the hype. In one corner, you have the former Jets starter, who ranked last among all qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating last year and is trying to restart his career with a Panthers team coming off a 5-11 season. In the other, assuming Deshaun Watson is still on the sideline amid his sexual misconduct lawsuits and trade demand, you have one of Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Finley or rookie Davis Mills. If you like watching bad teams with muddled futures, this one is for you.

Thanksgiving

The NFL has its traditional Thanksgiving teams facing middle-of-the-road opponents, though that Bears game could be fun if Justin Fields is the starter in Chicago by then. The night wraps with a Bills-Saints matchup that is putting a lot of hope in Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill to deliver a competitive game.

Game 1: Bears at Lions

Game 2: Raiders at Cowboys

Game 3: Bills at Saints

'Sunday Night Football' (NBC)

The NFL wasn't subtle with its plans for Sunday nights, as several playoff contenders have multiple games in the highly visible timeslot and three — the 49ers, Chiefs and Packers — will be making three different appearances. 

The full SNF slate:

Week 1: Bears at Rams

Week 2: Chiefs at Ravens

Week 3: Packers at 49ers

Week 4: Buccaneers at Patriots

Week 5: Bills at Chiefs

Week 6: Seahawks at Steelers

Week 7: Colts at 49ers

Week 8: Cowboys at Vikings

Week 9: Titans at Rams

Week 10: Chiefs at Raiders

Week 11: Steelers at Chargers

Week 12: Browns at Ravens

Week 13: 49ers at Seahawks

Week 14: Bears at Packers

Week 15: Saints at Buccaneers

Week 16: Washington at Cowboys

Week 17: Vikings at Packers

No games: Lions, Falcons, Panthers, Giants, Eagles, Cardinals, Bengals, Texans, Jaguars, Dolphins, Jets, Broncos

The best SNF game: Buccaneers at Patriots

The "How Do You Like Me Now?" Bowl. The week ahead of this game will be an awful cacophony of Brady and Bill Belichick hot takes. The game itself should be a fun matchup between a star-studded Bucs team and a revamped Patriots team that could be out for blood. Bonus points if Mac Jones is already the starter in New England.

Both Chiefs games on here are also going to be huge, against two AFC powers with similarly electric quarterbacks. And don't discount a Washington-Dallas matchup that could end up deciding the NFC East.

The worst SNF game: Vikings at Packers

Maybe Aaron Rodgers agrees to stay in Green Bay and maybe the Vikings get things back together after last year's 7-9 disappointment. Both events happening seems unlikely and that's unfortunately what this game likely needs to avoid getting flexed out of Sunday night.

'Monday Night Football' (ESPN)

ESPN's Monday night slates have traditionally been hit or miss, and this one feels lacking in true "circle it on the calendar" games. The most intriguing games are basically all divisional matchups, and it's worth wondering if the late-season ones will even decide the division.

The full MNF slate:

Week 1: Ravens at Raiders

Week 2: Lions at Packers

Week 3: Eagles at Cowboys

Week 4: Raiders at Chargers

Week 5: Colts at Ravens

Week 6: Bills at Titans

Week 7: Saints at Seahawks

Week 8: Giants at Chiefs

Week 9: Bears at Steelers

Week 10: Rams at 49ers

Week 11: Giants at Buccaneers

Week 12: Seahawks at Washington

Week 13: Patriots at Bills

Week 14: Rams at Cardinals

Week 15: Vikings at Bears

Week 16: Dolphins at Saints

Week 17: Browns at Steelers

No games: Falcons, Panthers, Bengals, Texans, Jaguars, Jets, Broncos

The best MNF game: Rams at 49ers

Both teams have made a Super Bowl in the past three years. Both are also going through major QB transitions. Matthew Stafford will be playing with quite possibly the most talented roster and best coaching staff of his career, while the Trey Lance Era in San Francisco might just be getting started in Week 10. This game could end up being a massive bellwether for both teams.

The worst MNF game: Giants at Buccaneers

It should tell you something that the runner-up for this pick was Giants-Chiefs. In either game, the Giants are probably getting steamrolled by an elite team. The Chiefs game should at least have some wild Mahomes highlights, but the Bucs matchup has a distinct "four Leonard Fournette touchdowns" feel to it.

Other major games

The NFL didn't dig deep to find the non-Jaguars game to sacrifice at the London altar. Maybe Zach Wilson delivers some fun highlights, but the league didn't put either of these teams on Sunday night or Monday games for a reason. The Christmas games are a bit more fun.

Week 15 Saturday games remain TBD.

London (NFL Network, CBS)

Week 5: Jets at Falcons

Week 6: Dolphins at Jaguars

Christmas (NFL Network)

Week 16: Browns at Packers, Colts at Cardinals

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