The 2021 NFL schedule was released Wednesday and it’s filled with many circle-the-date-on-the-calendar matchups.
With the league expanding to a 17-game schedule, here are 17 of this season’s biggest matchups:
The Opening Kick
Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 1)
The 2021 NFL season begins right where the 2020 campaign ended -- at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The Bucs will raise their franchise’s second Super Bowl banner, while Tom Brady will raise his seventh. And, after a season of limited capacity, it will be done in front of a larger home crowd that has long been waiting to show their appreciation. The Bucs will face the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Sept. 9. We’ll see Brady make his first pass since throwing the Lombardi Trophy across the bay.
The Revenge Games
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots (Week 4)
Speaking of Brady, there’s only one team in the NFL he has never beat. You get one guess ... Yup, it’s the only team he has never played: the New England Patriots. He’ll get his first chance to do so when he returns to Foxboro to take on his former team, and he’s bringing fellow former-Pat Rob Gronkowski and a shiny new ring. The whole debate over whether Brady or Belichick was more valuable to the Pats’ dynasty has lost some steam after the Brady-led Bucs won the Super Bowl while the Belichick-led Pats missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. With Belichick game-planning against Brady and Gronk, and with Brady’s short-term successor (Cam Newton) and long-term successor (Mac Jones) both in the building, and with the crowd ready to welcome Brady back to town, this is a true “Get your popcorn ready” game that could set records for ratings and ticket prices.
Houston Texans at Arizona Cardinals (Week 7)
This one would have been of interest had it simply been DeAndre Hopkins facing the Houston Texans for the first time since they traded him for what seems like pennies on the dollar. The game then got an extra dose of revenge when J.J. Watt signed with the Arizona Cardinals after being released by the Texans in February. Watt, after 10 seasons with the Texans, was beloved on the field and in the community. Hopkins, who was first-team All-Pro in the final three seasons of his seven-year tenure in Houston, has been in a Twitter war with his former team since the March 2020 trade. Now it moves to the field.
Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Rams (Week 7)
It’s not very often that two former No. 1 picks are traded for one another and then, thanks to the scheduling gods, play against one another the very next season. But that will be the case when Matthew Stafford’s Rams take on Jared Goff’s Lions, just months after the quarterbacks switched teams in a blockbuster trade. Stafford plays against the only team he’s ever known, having spent 12 seasons in Detroit and thrown for 45,109 yards and 282 touchdowns. Goff returns to L.A. after five seasons and a Super Bowl run with the Rams.
The Rookie Watch
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets (Week 16)
When quarterbacks are selected with the first three picks in the draft for just the third time in NFL history, it adds intrigue to the debuts of signal callers who will forever be compared to one another. The first two of those quarterbacks selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars and Zach Wilson of the Jets, will go head-to-head in their rookie seasons, assuming both have the starting job at the time. It will be years before who made the right pick is officially determined, but this will be an intriguing, way-too-early litmus test. And in case you were wondering, the other two drafts where QBs went 1-2-3 were 1971 (1. Jim Plunkett, Patriots; 2. Archie Manning; Saints, 3. Dan Pastorini, Oilers) and 1999 (1. Tim Couch, Browns; 2. Donovan McNabb, Eagles; 3. Akili Smith, Bengals).
The Disgruntled QBs
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints (Week 1)
When the Green Bay Packers take the field Week 1, there’s a chance Aaron Rodgers might not be with them. That could be because he’s playing for a different team or because he’s refusing to play while awaiting a trade. Either way, it could be a very unceremonious end to the Rodgers era in Green Bay, one that could force the Packers to start the season with a new QB for just the third time since 1992 when Brett Favre took over. The bridge that went from Favre to Rodgers would extend to Jordan Love, who the Packers drafted with their first-round pick in 2020, a move that added to Rodgers’ unhappiness.
As for the Saints, it’s never fun to be the guy who replaces the guy who threw for more passing yards than anyone ever (80,358), tossed more touchdown passes than everyone not named Tom Brady (571), made 13 Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl, and is a beloved figure in New Orleans. That responsibility awaits either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, one of whom will replace future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, who announced his retirement in March.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers (Week 4)
Endless offseason trade rumors surrounded both Russell Wilson and Jimmy Garoppolo, and yet both are penciled in as the starters for this game. Garoppolo remains a placeholder until Trey Lance, the QB the 49ers traded up to take with the No. 3 pick, is ready to take over. That could mean a full season under center for Garoppolo, as he tries to help the Niners put an injury-riddled season behind them and return to the Super Bowl. It was Wilson, and his receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, who got off to a historic start en route to winning the NFC West last season. After absorbing far too many sacks and suffering another early exit in the postseason, word spread that Wilson was open to a trade. Trade rumors behind them (for now), the two QBs are set to battle for the division crown.
The MVP Marquee Matchups
Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 9)
It’s a showdown between two of the last three MVPs, assuming reigning winner Aaron Rodgers is still wearing green when the Packers take on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. This matchup between last season’s 14-2 Chiefs, best in the AFC, and 13-3 Packers, best in the NFC, is a gift to fans courtesy of the NFL’s added 17th game, which happens to pit the winner of the NFC North against the winner of the AFC West.
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens (Week 2)
It’s another showdown between two of the last three MVPs. Since Lamar Jackson became starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season, he has only lost seven games. Three of those have been to the Kansas City Chiefs: an overtime loss during Jackson’s rookie year in 2018, a narrow loss during Jackson’s MVP campaign in 2019 and another loss last season. The road to the Super Bowl is likely to include another pitstop in KC, as the Chiefs seek a third straight AFC title. Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens get another opportunity to show they are a threat.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 17)
Old rivalry. New twist. For the first time in a long time, it’s the Steelers who are seeking revenge against the Browns. Cleveland defeated Pittsburgh in the final week of the regular season to end a postseason drought that dated back to 2002. Fittingly, it set up a matchup with the Steelers in the playoffs, where the Browns jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first quarter and held on for their first postseason victory since 1995. Was this role reversal a changing of the guard or a one-year outlier?
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 5)
The only thing standing between the Buffalo Bills and Super Bowl 55 was Patrick Mahomes. Literally. He was sacked just once. The Bills’ pass rush struggled to put pressure on Mahomes, who had his way in the pocket en route to a 38-24 Chiefs win in the AFC Championship Game. Mahomes probably was on the mind of those in the Bills’ draft room when they used their first- and second-round picks on defensive ends Greg Rousseau out of Miami and Boogie Basham out of Wake Forest. The Chiefs, after Mahomes was on the run throughout the Super Bowl, made upgrades of their own by overhauling their offensive line. They’ll have five new starters from last year’s season opener after trading for Orlando Brown Jr. and signing free agents Joe Thuney, Kyle Long and Austin Blythe.
The Wide Open NFC East
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (Week 5)
This always-juicy NFC East rivalry has some added intrigue with the healthy, star-power returns of Giants running back Saquon Barkley and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. Barkley missed all but two games last season after tearing his ACL. Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury that ended his season five games in.
Barkley and Prescott put the Giants and Cowboys back in playoff contention with the NFC East wide open, with any interdivision matchup between the four rivals worthy of making this list.
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Football Team (Week 17)
The Washington Football Team won the NFC East last season with a 7-9 record. In the second year of the Ron Rivera and Chase Young era, it’s likely going to take a few more wins to take the division. Washington has the defense to repeat, having bolstered what was already one of the top units in the NFC by selecting Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis in the first round of the draft. The offense gets a sprinkling of some Fitzmagic with the signing of veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Philadelphia Eagles have completely overhauled their passing game through the draft over the last two years, with 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts set to begin his first full season as starting QB after taking over for the now-departed Carson Wentz last season. He’ll have two young receivers to throw two, with the Eagles having used their 2020 first-round pick on Jalen Reagor and their 2021 first-round pick on DeVonta Smith. The Philly offense versus the Washington defense will be fun to watch.
The New Eras
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts (Week 1)
Carson Wentz gets a much-needed fresh start after being traded from the Eagles to the Colts. Wentz spent five tumultuous seasons in Philadelphia, which included a Super Bowl victory that he did not play in. He was stuck in the shadow of departed Super Bowl hero Nick Foles, and was then overshadowed by a 2020 second-round pick, Hurts. Wentz was benched in favor of the rookie in a Week 13 loss, which proved to be his final game as an Eagle. Is there untapped potential in the 28-year-old quarterback? The Colts sure seem to think so after giving the Eagles two draft picks in exchange for Wentz and his $25.4 million salary.
Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears (Week 2)
The Chicago Bears have a social media team that might be responsible for creating a quarterback controversy in the Windy City. Shortly after Chicago signed veteran quarterback Andy Dalton in free agency, the Bears tweeted “QB1” with a picture of Dalton in a Bears uniform. A few short weeks later, the Bears traded up in the draft to select Justin Fields as their “QB1” of the future. How far into the future -- whether weeks or months or longer -- is unknown. Perhaps Dalton, who said he signed with the Bears because he was assured of a starting job, is still QB1 when the Bears face his former team, the Cincinnati Bengals. If not, he might fall into the disgruntled QB category below. The Bengals hope to have their QB1, Joe Burrow, back under center and at full strength. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft had his impressive rookie season cut short after suffering a season-ending knee injury that required surgery to repair multiple ligaments.
The Christmas Games
Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Cardinals (Week 16)
‘Tis the season for some football. The NFL crashes the Christmas Day festivities this year with a Saturday doubleheader. So, sip some eggnog, open gifts, listen to your cousin talk about his fantasy football team, and gather around the tree while watching Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Jones, Jonathan Taylor and Kyler Murray. And maybe Aaron Rodgers … assuming he's still playing in the Green Bay Packer uniform.
Mike Gavin contributed to this story.