After an interesting free-agency period and an equally as eventful NFL Draft, the 2021 NFL Season is drawing nearer and nearer. One of the most important pieces of formality still left to be done before training camp and preseason approach was one that has become a highly-anticipated highlight of the NFL offseason. Last night, the 2021 NFL Schedule was revealed, as always, on national television, four months before the September 9th Kickoff Game.
The extremely competitive nature of the league and its scheduling formula lead to a very entertaining slate of games every season. However, the 2021 campaign might be the most special in recent memory, having received a notable boost. That is, of course, the change that will see every NFL club play seventeen games, instead of the sixteen which have been in place since 1978. The opponent of the additional matchup is determined by the corresponding position in the team’s division. This alone adds four games assembled between first-place teams, alongside other spicy matchups.
Therefore, needless to say, the 2021 NFL Schedule is more stacked than it has ever been. Here are the five most interesting games, in no particular order, heading into the campaign.
Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans
Week 7, Sunday, 1 PM ET, CBS
Why It Will Deliver: The Chiefs’ return to the Super Bowl this past February, albeit with a bitter end, was no fluke. Kansas City didn’t just maintain the same level as in their previous AFC pennant campaign. The team was, in fact, better than during both of the two seasons with Patrick Mahomes in charge of one of the best offenses in the NFL, if not the best. Their record – 14-2 – resembled an improvement of two wins compared to both the 2019 and 2018 seasons.
The reasons for the Chiefs reaching such peaks is very avid – a progressing defense, on the one hand, and upgrades in the ground game, on the other. Firstly, KC’s defensive group against the running game improved from 4.9 to 4.5, climbing to 18th from 28th. This occurred while its secondary held steady, staying in the top ten despite its allowed passer rating growing from 80.8 to 89.4. Entering 2021, the only crucial departures were left tackle Eric Fisher and corner Breshad Breeland. However, they addressed the former issue by adding Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown while the latter name is still unemployed on the market. In short, beware of Kansas City more than ever.
Yet, Kansas City’s visit to Nashville and a decent, improved Tennessee Titans ballclub could prove more difficult than expected. Throughout the 2020 campaign, the Titans produced the second-most yards, led by the second-most productive ground game and the most reliable running back in the game – Derrick Henry. All in all, the offense overperformed across the fourth-heaviest workload in the league.
At the same time, the defense remains a liability but much less so. The passing defense was amongst the worst in the league last winter. Since then, it has brought in reinforcements in Janoris Jenkins and rookie Caleb Farley. Whereas the former has put on allowed ratings in the 80.0 range with the Saints and the Giants, the latter’s status as a newcomer makes it hard to believe in his immediate capabilities. Still, Tennessee’s secondary should pay dividends come September. Therefore, the Titans promise to be even more competitive than last year’s 11-5 record indicates, being plugged in a fiery division race with the Colts.
This could be a real “collision of titans”, no pun intended.
Implications: This early in the season, this game won’t have any huge repercussions. However, it will be one of the toughest matchups for both teams. Both the Titans and the Chiefs rank near the middle of the league in strength of schedule, according to EatDrickAndSleepFootball.Com.
Top matchups: Tennessee Running Game (5.2 yards/run, 2nd) vs. Kansas City Defense Against the Run (4.5 yards/run, 18th)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Indianapolis Colts
Week 12, Sunday, 1 PM ET, FOX
Why It Will Deliver: In 2020, Tom Brady cemented his legendary legacy, winning his seventh Super Bowl at the age of 43. With a passer rating of 102.2 and more than 65% accuracy rate, Brady was more efficient than ever. That was in large part due to the overwhelming support he had on both sides of the ball. Namely, around him was a secondary ranked 18th in the NFL and one of the deepest and most solid receiving corps in the league. However, that paled in comparison to the team’s rushing defense, which conceded the fewest yards per carry in the entire NFL.
Heading into 2021, the Bucs have only grown stronger. Tampa has lost next to nothing in tackle Joe Haeg. Meanwhile, they found a boost to their pass-rush when they drafted Joe Tryon out of Washington in the first round. Not only are the Buccaneers capable of getting back to the playoffs but they can improve upon their miraculous 2020 putout amidst the questions Atlanta and New Orleans are facing.
They will face one of the most balanced teams in the National Football League. Indianapolis was just that last winter. After a fruitful offseason, the Colts have promised to catch the attention during the upcoming year. Despite a tough AFC South opposition in Tennessee, the Colts are an obvious contender to go on a deep postseason run. Indy added Eric Fisher to what already was one of the best offensive lines in the league. Meanwhile, new quarterback Carson Wentz, much younger than Philip Rivers, who was under center for IND’s second-place finish last season, could be due for a campaign of improvement at the age of 28.
Perhaps it is too early to predict this as an under-the-radar potential Super Bowl preview. Nonetheless, this interconference 2021 NFL Schedule matchup puts on display the best of both the AFC and NFC at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Implications: The Buccaneers should be expected to win the division after coming up short last year. Yet, the race could still be well and alive after eleven weeks of football. Therefore, this game will be highly consequential for the Bucs. The same inevitably goes for Indy – their rivalry with Tennessee could go down to the wire.
Top matchup: Tampa Bay Passing Offense (102.8 passer rating, 9th) vs. Indianapolis Passing Defense (90.5 allowed passer rating, 12th)
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
Week 5, SNF, 8:20 PM ET, NBC
Why It Will Deliver: One of the most highly-anticipated AFC showdowns on the 2021 NFL Schedule is the rematch of this past January’s AFC Championship Game. The Bills will be looking for revenge after losing at Arrowhead by the score of 38-24.
There’s no question when it comes to the magnitude of this game as regards the storylines involved in it. However, what makes it a season-defining one is that both sides are expected to, and likely will, remain at their same respective spots atop the NFL’s hierarchy.
Last year, it was apparent that Buffalo was extremely close to knocking out KC off its top post in the conference. This past offseason, general manager Brandon Beane did all but keep on narrowing the gap, up to the point where the Bills are now an AFC contender comparable to the two-time back-to-back AFC champions.
The Bills were able to add a crucial piece of weaponry in Emmanuel Sanders, giving Josh Allen his best set of receivers he has had in his short tenure as a professional quarterback. That comes after he was in charge of the NFL’s third-most productive air raid, with a collective team passer rating of 107.6. Furthermore, Buffalo’s passing defense, the fifth-best in the NFL, retained a key member in Levi Wallace on a one-year deal. Also, vital additions will benefit their pass-rush and ground game, both significantly. The team drafted defensive ends with their first two selections in the 2021 NFL Draft and acquired Matt Breida to push one of the league’s slowest running groups into positive territory.
The game that determined the conclusion of the 2020 AFC campaign might very well be the cornerstone of the conference’s intrigue come 2021.
Implications: Again, this showdown comes too early in the season to have any decisive character. Nonetheless, as perhaps the toughest obstacle for both teams, it could very well determine the end-of-season seeding within the AFC.
Top matchup: Kansas City Passing Offense (107.3 passer rating, 4th) vs. Buffalo Passing Defense (86.9 allowed passer rating, 5th)
Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 14, Sunday, 4:25 PM ET, CBS
Why It Will Deliver: Buffalo was just a quarter or two away from making that exact showdown the matchup for Super Bowl LV. Entering the 2021 NFL season, this possibility isn’t just a distant dream or a potential fluke. Unlike last season, both the Bills and the Bucs are amongst the projected preseason favorites to snatch a ticket to the biggest game of the year. Needless to say, both clubs are likely to stay close to that status until the dying moments of the upcoming campaign.
That game, the outcome of which will impact many other teams and their regular-season aspirations, pits two of the best air raids against each other. Both air units were within the top ten in the AFC, with the Bills placing third and the Bucs holding steady at ninth. Moreover, both groups might be due for an upward tick – Buffalo has added Sanders while TB will utilize Antonio Brown‘s services for a whole campaign. Last winter, the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver made just eight appearances after signing with Tampa mid-season.
Regarding group matchups, the Bills possess one noticeable advantage. Tampa Bay will need to observe a season-wide improvement in that department to reinstate parity. Alternatively, this will be where the Bills could guarantee themselves a huge victory in a comfortable fashion. Clearly, the subject here is air raids against passing defenses.
While Tom Brady‘s productive unit faces one of the league’s five wonders when it comes to pass coverage, the counterpart collision isn’t in the same boat. Josh Allen and the Bills’ third-best passing offense will face a Buccaneers secondary which ranks 15th-worst in the NFL.
Implications: Buffalo might have a comfortable lead atop the AFC East come Week 14. However, their battle for a first-round bye will not be as care-free. TB should also amongst their opponents on that difficult road, if not the hardest of them all. Huge stakes in this Sunday afternoon matchup.
Top matchup: Tampa Bay Passing Offense (102.8 passer rating, 9th) vs. Buffalo Passing Defense (86.9 allowed passer rating, 5th)
Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Cardinals
Week 16, Saturday (Christmas Day), 8:15 PM ET, NFL Network
Why It Will Deliver: The Indianapolis Colts aren’t the only confident playoff competitor in a close division battle. In fact, out west in the NFC, it seems like there’s no clear frontrunner either for the crown or the bottom of that group. The fierce NFC West race includes the Arizona Cardinals, one of the most improved teams throughout the last two years. The Cardinals climbed from 3-13 in 2018 to a record of 8-8 in 2020, almost grabbing a postseason berth in their latest season. Now, their road to glory is bound to carry onto the 2021 NFL campaign.
Arizona’s offense was far from perfect, ranking near the middle of the pack in major passing metrics and losing their top rusher Kenyan Drake. However, those shortcomings were quickly taken care of as the Cards acquired A.J. Green and James Conner from the free-agent market. Moreover, general manager Steve Keim found a way to add even more upside to one of the NFL’s most powerful pass-rushes. J.J. Watt was brought on a two-year deal, joining a defensive front line that posted a 48-sack performance in 2020. This saw Arizona tied for fourth-best in the whole league.
The Cardinals’ secondary could also retain its top-half status after replacing the outgoing Patrick Peterson with Malcolm Butler. Butler has surrendered a passer rating of 91.0 or less in each of his last two seasons with the Titans (57 targets and 127 targets, respectively).
The tight competition within the NFC West might prevent the Arizona Cardinals from taking advantage thanks to the prosperity they have experienced. Nevertheless, after upgrading upon a contending .500-record ballclub, the Cardinals should be ready to mix the standings up in the division. Therefore, considering the possibility of two competing and improved teams, amongst the best in the NFL and in different conferences, this could be one of the showdowns with the most unrealized potential as of the release of the 2021 NFL Schedule.
Implications: Heading into Christmas Day, the Colts will hope to be at least within striking distance of the Titans. Still, a more favorable scenario for Indianapolis in this close race for the crown isn’t to be ruled either. As for the Arizona Cardinals, anything less than a Wildcard spot will resemble a disappointing turn of events.
Top matchups: Indianapolis Offensive Line (21 allowed sacks, 2nd) vs. Arizona Pass-Rush (48 sacks, 4th)